The Man Behind Super Meat Boy's Squishy Sound

By VFS Web Team, on January 14, 2011

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2941","attributes":{"class":"media-image alignleft size-full wp-image-15464","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"220","height":"263","title":"Super Meat Boy","alt":""}}]]There's a method to the meat.
Super Meat Boy, the indie platformer released in fall to near-universal praise, has a lot of charm, which is good when you're giving gamers crippling cases of claw-hand from obsessively playing this punishing game. Retro fan service, adorable cutscenes, and hilarious death montages... They're all a big part of why we love Super Meat Boy.
And so are the sound effects. The ubiquitous squish-splat as your little red meat-cube wall-jumps and dodges buzzsaws  is a huge part of the game's character and integral to the experience.
Those sounds are the work of Sound Design for Visual Media grad Jordan Fehr. As a freelance sound designer in Ohio, Jordan is involved in sound design for film and theatre, but it's his recent game audio work that really stands out: including indies like Super Meat Boy and Steambirds and AAA titles like last year's Donkey Kong Country Returns, developed by Retro Studios.
On top of that, Jordan recently released his first independent sound library for sale, Power from the Past, a collection of late 18th and early 19th century machinery sound recordings.
Super Meat Boyis easily one of 2010's best-reviewed games - from before its release, with great showings at GDC and PAX, through its launches on Xbox Live Arcade and Steam. When it came time for end-of-year awards, the attention intensified - a nomination for Best Indie Game at the Spike VGAs, named Best Downloadable Game by EGM... The list goes on.
And aficionados love the sound. "Jordan Fehr did a great job on [Super Meat Boy]," said one of the hosts of the Game Audio Podcast. "All the sounds are super appropriate. There's a level of variability. It's all got this great tonal quality that lets it all sit in there. Ah, it's been great." (Tune in to 15:45 to hear it.)
We caught up with Jordan recently to talk about the origins of SMB'smeaty sounds, why a part-time deli job can be a handy thing to have, and his first sound library release.
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2942","attributes":{"class":"media-image alignright size-full wp-image-15466","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"220","height":"220","title":"Screen from Super Meat Boy","alt":""}}]]First of all - congratulations on Super Meat Boy's success! How closely were you watching the reaction when it first hit XBLA, through the Steam launch, end-of-year awards, and so on?
Jordan: Thanks a lot! We all followed the XBLA launch very closely. The project was two years in the making, and on that first day I was turning on my 360 in the studio just to see how many players were on the leaderboard, and it was going up by the hundreds every hour for the first couple days.
Our guys at Microsoft said if we cracked 10,000 people that it was a big success on the initial launch, and we had at least 14,000 on the leaderboards on launch day. And obviously we were excited to see those numbers knowing that we had a Steam launch coming a couple months around the corner. You scour the net and read the reviews and impressions, it's natural. And audio people accept that the sound probably won't be mentioned... ha ha.
Everyone is honored by the nominations and awards for end-of-the-year stuff for 2010. Being on lists with Mass Effect 2 is just surreal.
It was a small team behind this game - as a sound designer, how does that experience compare to working on a big title like Donkey Kong Country Returns?
Jordan: One major difference was that I was responsible for all the sounds in Super Meat Boy, and there was no mentor or boss above me with more experience that I could go to for help or advice. But in terms of actual work flow, it is very similar. You want to have one person to report to, so things don't get confusing, and as long as they are the decision-maker when you deliver assets, things go smoothly. This could be the audio director in the case of DKCR, or it could be the creator in the case of Super Meat Boy.
The only other difference is that working on a bigger title has some more organization sometimes, because production was already underway before I arrived, so I would have detailed lists to work from on a dedicated server that would be updated daily. On an indie game with no budget at all like Super Meat Boy, it was just random emails at all hours of the day, or Skype.
There are good things about both. Getting thrown in the deep end to fend for yourself can be good sometimes, but learning from someone like Scott Petersen at Retro is completely invaluable too. It is also comforting to know that on a AAA title there are people worrying specifically about audio implementation and QA, so you can rest easy knowing someone is devoting time to making sure your sounds are playing back properly. On an indie title you might not have the time or ability to do that kind of testing, so you have to trust the programmer or designer when they say that everything is okay, which can be scary.
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2943","attributes":{"class":"media-image alignleft size-full wp-image-15467","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"220","height":"220","title":"Scene from Super Meat Boy","alt":""}}]]Much like the end-of-level death montages, SMB's sound effects are a big part of the game's charm. Can you give us a general sense of what went into the effects?
Jordan: Thanks for saying so! A lot of the character sounds were actually meat. I was working part time at a deli during at least the first half of production on SMB, and I would grab things like slabs of turkey fat that they were throwing out and take it home.
Sometimes, as is common, the actual thing didn't produce the right sounds so I would use other types of squishes and squirts to get detail or wetness that I was missing.
Funny story... While I was at VFS I did some "squish" type sounds for a class project, using things like the insides of a pumpkin, wet noodles, and all sorts of other vegetables and fruits, and a lot of that source keeps getting used in various things I work on.
In the end, its all about combining and layering to make things work. You should use a multi-track editor for design and build a language of sounds to pull from that are unique to each project, especially if you are working on more than one at the same time. Trying things out is the fun part.
When you freelance, you're sacrificing some stability. If someone thinking of following in your footsteps were to ask about that freelance path, what would you tell them? What are you gaining by going that way?
Jordan: I never really had a choice, honestly. I thought when I got out of school that I would never want to be a freelancer. Stability is my friend. But the catch-22 in both the film and even more so the games industry is pretty hard to get around, and I was turned down a lot for a while at studios even after getting several on-site interviews. So I would work nights on sound design after working all day at a day job, just keeping sharp and doing Flash games for little to no pay.
With a little bit of luck and a lot of emails to people, I finally caught breaks in both independent film and independent games because those are the ones willing to give you a shot sometimes. But I couldn't ever afford to move to the West Coast and try to work in LA or San Fransisco. With the internet the way that it is, I'm lucky, because I've been able to work from a distance thus far.
Games are still kind of like the Wild West - there aren't any rules. Some companies only work with in-house audio people, but you would be surprised how many don't. I am sure if you spoke with the VFS guys working Seattle and Microsoft they could give you the other perspective, but there are things that are very hard about freelance. You have to deal with business all the time, which I hate - I just want to do sound design like most creative people, not deal with negotiations, contracts, and money all the time. You have to pay more tax for not having a boss. You don't have access to studio equipment or company money to buy or rent gear that you might need.
So you slowly build things up with each project, and save, save, save money for the lean times. You have to be good at what you do, and really care about it. If you aren't passionate enough about sound design to the point where you think and talk about it all the time, it might be hard for you. I can't even be sure if freelancing is going to work for me in the long term, but I hope so!
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"2944","attributes":{"class":"media-image alignright size-full wp-image-15469","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"220","height":"220","title":"Screen from Super Meat Boy","alt":""}}]]What prompted you to package and start selling the Power from the Past library? Can we expect more?
Jordan: I would like to do more in the future, sure, but it depends on if I find something unique to offer. This new onslaught of independent sound libraries is a great thing for sound designers. The large, commonly used libraries are pre-designed sounds that are processed and ready to use. But being able to buy very specific types of raw material straight from other guys like me is fantastic. They are sound designers, so they know what you want in terms of organization, filenames, and metadata.
The ones that really do well are the ones that offer one of two things: A) they are material that is very difficult logistically to go get or expensive to just go record or B) they are very unique and would be hard for others to get access to. My first library is the latter. I had access to something pretty unique, so I knew other people might want it. But the key is that these libraries are high sample rate, and they are raw, unprocessed material. That way, the person buying them on license can use them to make their own material, not just use the library sound effect as-is. Which is perfect for freelance sound designers, or in-house teams looking to beef up their library with custom stuff. We are the boutique SFX shops, essentially.
Frank Bry has been a great help me to me in this area, and was a big driving force in this new revolution. Any sound guys reading this, check him out at therecordist.com.
Thanks, Jordan! Readers can check out Power from the Past right here. Super Meat Boy, meanwhile, can be downloaded now on Xbox Live Arcade or, for PC gamers, Steam.