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GIANTS & POP/STARS: Making Music with Sound Design

A behind-the-scenes look at how we designed sound effects for the K/DA and True Damage skins.

Dear Music,

We love you.

Riot Games

Seriously. If we weren’t making games, we’d probably just make music. We’ve released two metal albums, six Worlds songs, countless champion themes, a K-pop chart topper, and a hard-hitting hip hop/trap/EDM hybrid slapper.

But when it came time to translate the music from K/DA and True Damage into in-game sound effects, we discovered a bunch of new challenges. We’d never made skin lines based off real-life music before, and we didn’t know what exactly we’d run into along the way.

Before we get into all that, let’s take a quick look at how sound effects are designed for League.

Sound Effects… How Do You Even?

Sound design in League should be seamless. It should tell you how abilities work. Hard hitting spells and attacks should sound hard. Stuns should make players feel like they’ve been caught in a bear trap. More importantly, they shouldn’t detract from gameplay.

Picture this:

You bought a nice new skin for your main. Animations are clean and you smash lane. Now it’s time to teamfight. You’re greeted not with the missing pings of an impressed team and a prompt enemy team “ff20” in chat. Instead, you’re told that your new skin is too loud and now everyone’s deaf. Thanks.

That’s what the sound designers want to avoid. It’s all about clarity and balance. But how do you maintain those while working within the confines of a song?

The Realest Sound Design in the Game

K/DA was uncharted territory. So in the beginning, sound designer Julian “Riot Zimberfly” Samal began exploring K-pop to understand what K/DA was and wasn’t before it even… was.

After hours upon hours of research (read: listening to tons of K-pop), he narrowed K/DA’s sound palette down to a list of adjectives that felt cohesive with the early cut of “POP/STARS.” Edgy. Glamorous. Bombastic.

Early version of “POP/STARS”

“I really wanted to deliver something authentic,” explains Riot Zimberfly. “Sebastien Najand, the composer for POP/STARS, poured so much passion into the song. It’s a love letter to K-pop, so I wanted the in-game sound effects to deliver on that.”

Riot Zimberfly also needed to make sure that he stayed true to early skin concepts. Not too bubblegum. Not too hard. Not too electronic. Like a bowl of porridge, it had to be just right.

“Over the process, I learned a lot and the song grew and evolved. There were key modulations and adjustments,” explains Riot Zimberfly. “I had to go back to Ahri and Eve a lot, since they were the first two. And when I got to Kai’Sa, my sound palette had grown and changed to the point where there was a noticeable difference in the thematic language from Ahri to Kai’Sa, which required design cohesion passes across all four champions.”

  • K/DA Ahri’s early E sound effect
  • K/DA Ahri’s final E sound effect

Ahri’s earliest iteration leaned a little bit too heavily into the realm of bubblegum pop, so Riot Zimberfly used the new, clearer design palette to give her SFXs another pass. Because her kit contains more “looping buff” than “hard-hitting impact,” Ahri’s sound effects are more heavily influenced by K/DA-inspired music rather than punchy musical snippets from “POP/STARS” directly. But a careful balance needs to be struck between music and sound effects. 

“It’s easy to try to inject music everywhere in these skins,” Riot Zimberfly explains. “Because you want to give players this wonderful musical experience, but you really don’t want to interrupt gameplay. It’s also easy to hold off and then leave the skin feeling empty.”

  • K/DA Ahri’s early passive sound effect (which later became Akali’s shroud)
  • K/DA Ahri’s final passive sound effect

Sometimes the sound designers’ earliest versions are their favorites, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best.

“You can’t design sound in a vacuum,” explains Riot Zimberfly. “Because in a game like League everything comes down to context and champ playstyle. Kai’Sa plays like an assassin, so she dives in and unloads everything. And that can be really sonically overwhelming if you’re not careful.”

Early drafts of Kai’Sa’s sound effects were really satisfying… in isolation. But while watching some Kai’Sa mains use the skin, Riot Zimberfly realized that he hadn’t taken playstyle into consideration. After hitting an enemy with Void Seeker and diving into the backline with Killer Instinct, Kai’Sa would unload her arsenal of Void infused weaponry, bombarding her enemies with an onslaught of harmonic and melodic motifs that quickly became too much.

Several rounds of tweaking and feedback later, and Kai’Sa found herself with snappy sound effects. They were flashy and bombastic, but more importantly they didn’t overwhelm the other players with a symphony of percussive hits.

  • Kai’Sa’s full base kit sound effects
  • Kai’Sa full K/DA kit sound effects

And then we took everything we learned from K/DA and avoided all of the happy mistakes along the way and the process for True Damage was smooth sailing. …Right?

Running It Back

GIANTS wasn’t finalized when we started,” laughs sound designer Jayvon “Riot Jirsan” Rymer. “We were building the plane as we were flying it, and we had no idea how to get to where we wanted without being too close to K/DA. We just had the rough song track. No vocals or anything. So we used that as a reference point and just went from there.”

After deciding on True Damage’s genre mashup and overall feel, the core team created playlists with songs the True Damage champions would theoretically listen to. And while these helped put the sound designers in the right mental space to get started, they still relied heavily on early concept art and, eventually, the song’s rough track.

“After I finished Yasuo’s sound effects, Ekko was given a really cool comic book aesthetic. So I had to go back and take another pass to make them feel cohesive,” shares Riot Jirsan. “Yasuo’s sounds were originally influenced by his base [skin], so they were more wispy. But after seeing Ekko, I realized Yasuo wouldn’t fit in and I needed to make him more True Damage-y. Ekko’s design helped inform the visual and sonic language on the rest of the champs moving forward.”

  • True Damage Yasuo’s early W
  • True Damage Yasuo’s final W

Overall cohesion is one of the goals of any skin line, but for True Damage (and K/DA) it’s extra important because they’re supposed to have a singular aesthetic. Like with K/DA, the sound designers had to find a balance between song, skin line, and base champion thematic.

Qiyana in particular offered up a sound design challenge when trying to strike that balance.

“I sat down and was like, ‘Cool! We’re doing a music thematic. Here’s the sound palette. Now I have to apply it to three elements,’” Riot Strâtos jokes. “How am I going to break down ice, earth, and grass into music? What represents those?”

So Riot Strâtos explored, ideated, and tried (repeatedly). Some iterations worked, and some didn’t.

Exactly how many organic sounds and filters could be added to Qiyana’s kit before it started to pull away from True Damage’s thematic? Turns out quite a bit when you need four final versions for each element.

Qiyana Grass Element

  • True Damage Qiyana’s early grass W
  • True Damage Qiyana’s final, in-game grass W (version 1)
  • True Damage Qiyana’s final, in-game grass W (version 2)
  • True Damage Qiyana’s final, in-game grass W (version 3)
  • True Damage Qiyana’s final, in-game grass W (version 4)

Qiyana Ice Element

  • True Damage Qiyana’s early ice W
  • True Damage Qiyana’s final, in-game ice W (version 1)
  • True Damage Qiyana’s final, in-game ice W (version 2)
  • True Damage Qiyana’s final, in-game ice W (version 3)
  • True Damage Qiyana’s final, in-game ice W (version 4)

Qiyana Rock Element

  • True Damage Qiyana’s early rock W
  • True Damage Qiyana’s final, in-game rock W (version 1)
  • True Damage Qiyana’s final, in-game rock W (version 2)
  • True Damage Qiyana’s final, in-game rock W (version 3)
  • True Damage Qiyana’s final, in-game rock W (version 4)

After finding a good balance for all three of Qiyana’s elements, Riot Strâtos focused fully on her ultimate with a singular goal: How many ears could he make bleed with her overwhelming ultimate soundscape? (In a good way, of course.)

The designers erred away from injecting too much of the song into the other skins. Some gameplay moments lend themselves perfectly to musical moments, like Akali’s shroud, Qiyana’s stealth trail, Senna’s mist, and Evelynn’s camouflage. In these places, the designers could highlight snippets of music that set the mood or build up to the champ’s hype moment.

But Ekko doesn’t have a stealth. And as True Damage’s frontman, he couldn’t be upstaged by the rest.

“Ekko already has a lot of GIANTS in his skin because of his DJ Sona-esque music system,” says Riot Jirsan. “We wanted to give players the chance to make their own music when they use his abilities.”

Not only did the musical prodigy’s sound effects need to have True Damage flavor, but they needed to work with the skin’s always-on music. Riot Jirsan found a balance by making Ekko’s abilities interact with the music in some very Ekko-like ways:

Finding Perfect Harmony

Whether it’s raining K-pop-stardom or dealing true damage, we want players to feel like they’re creating music with big brain outplays. 

League’s a symphony of sounds and with up to 10 players at a time, the sound designers need to make sure one instrument doesn’t overpower the rest. At the end of the day, it’s about getting a Double with Icathian Rain or a Penta on True Damage Ekko and feeling like you’ve heard the roar of the Worlds Finals crowd. But without it sounding like you did.

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