Audio is a very specialised area of the games industry. Some designers have been doing it for decades. So how did they get their jobs, and what do they look for when hiring new audio designers? Sean Cleaver asks UK studios and outsourcers for their advice and experiences
When you get a job in the games industry, you usually have a general idea of why you wanted to get that job in such a specialised field. Maybe you want to draw some fantastic characters, design memorable levels or even write a neat story into a small book in a large RPG.
Working in audio, however, can be quite different. It can be a very time and cost intensive area of development and the need for expertise and investment in technology can be great. Unlike other games jobs, there isn’t an obvious or direct route into working on game audio.
Many studios now have their own in-house audio production facilities and need qualified staff to operate them. This can be difficult for employers looking for the right person with the right knowledge, especially in an industry that evolves as fast as gaming does. So how exactly do you get in? For many, it’s down to a lifetime love of all things audio.
“I was lucky, way back in the 90’s I answered a local newspaper advert for a place called Gremlin Graphics,” recalls Pat Phelan, audio director at Sumo Digital. “The advert said that they were looking for a musician to work in house on their games. My background was as a programmer, but I played regular gigs with various bands at that time. I also had a massive interest in video games, in particular, the music they made. The musicians in those days were expected to do the audio design too. I naturally migrated towards sound design rather than music.”
Frontier’s Matthew Florianz’s introduction to audio came at a very young age. “At seven years old, I had convinced myself that Han Solo had a real blaster-pistol,” he says. “That fantasy came crashing down when a Star Wars documentary showed Ben Burtt banging a metal cable for his laser sounds. It was one of those naivety-born disappointments that would later become a fascination. I ended up in games almost by accident. I joined a web design company in the early 00s, and the owners were really keen on video games. Word reached our CEO that a Dutch publisher was looking for content. Our company got in contact and presented a document and within a few months we were working on our first game.”
For others, the route into audio was just a beat away from studying. “I joined after graduating from university where I studied music technology,” says Playground Games’ lead audio designer, Douglas Watson. “It’s a cliche?, but I seemed to be in the right place at the right time. I have always had a passion for games, so being able to apply my audio skillset to a format that I loved was a no brainer.”
“After graduating I started out in QA,” says Codemasters’ senior producer, Mike Tebbutt. “From there I branched out over time into various development and production roles. Several of my jobs have involved managing or producing audio as part of my responsibilities.”
One mistake is to re-score trailers for triple-A games. Having your work compared to the very best doesn’t always work,
Matthew Florianz, Frontier
The cost of running an in-house audio department is not cheap, so studios need to make sure that they have the right people who are ready to use the technology at hand. What kind of skills do you need to get an audio role at a studio? That depends on the technology the studio uses and where the developers place audio in their production priorities.
“In some studios, audio used to be an ‘end of chain service provider’,” says Frontier’s Florianz. “This is fast becoming an exception for in-house teams as we become an integral part of pre-production and involved in the concept phase. Audio work is moved from a one-to-one relationship (where something happens in-game, audio triggers a sound, sound plays on a pre- defined object) to being more data- and procedurally-informed.
“Members of the team work in DAW’s such as Cubase, Vegas, Pro-tools, Live, Soundforge and Reaper. We try not to get bogged down by tech, as we believe that creative, communicative people have all the tools to solve hardware and software problems; they know how to ask for help! For implementation, we use Wwise, which is pretty straightforward but does benefit from expertise.”
“At Playground we have two 7.1 mix rooms and one 5.1 edit suite,” explains Playground’s Watson. “Someone looking to work in game audio should already have a strong knowledge of multiple digital audio workstations and a keen ear. In-house audio designers are able to integrate and work closely with the wider team on a daily basis, that isn’t always possible with a distributed team. This enables audio designers to be included in the design process and apply their passion for sound to shape the project.”
“Being in-house means that you are a real part of the team,” says Sumo Digital’s Phelan. “You get to live and breathe the game within the culture of the team. Having that sense of ownership, being able to work with coders and artists directly in order to bring substance to your vision is vital; and it is why we like having our audio designers in house and working directly with the teams.
“We mostly work with PCs running Nuendo and a whole swathe of plugins. The useful thing about Nuendo is that it syncs with Wwise very nicely. Some of the guys here prefer Reaper so we’re keeping an eye on that too. We have a bunch of field recording equipment and an in-house studio where we record the source for most of our audio design. Understanding how to use new hardware/software is less important to me than having someone who understands how to create fantastic audio.”
Not everyone has the same requirements, however, as Codemasters’ Tebbutt explains. “As we work on quite a realistic sounding game the audio team doesn’t tend to have much use for hardware synthesisers and our mixing desks are all software based.
“In fact, the only hardware we really use are development kits. That said, most of our hardware comes in the form of recording gear, from microphones, windshields and recording devices, which we take on location to capture the sound of the F1 cars, tracks and garages.”
HEARING THE SOUNDWAVE
So far, you’d be hard pressed to find a definitive answer for how you should approach looking for work in games audio as, demonstrated by our contributors, everyone’s needs are very different. So it’s difficult to create a showreel specifically for any project.
However, one thing that doesn’t change across all of the studios we talked to is having an ear for audio and getting experience. “Someone looking for their first audio design job would probably need some sort of degree in an audio related discipline,” says Sumo Digital’s Phelan. “They should have a good portfolio of work that demonstrates their understanding of manipulating sound.
“Most importantly, passion is needed,” says Phelan. “Audio is always last on everyone’s list and the only reason there so many awesome sounding games out there at the moment is because passionate, capable individuals are willing to push even when nobody else cares. It’s a tough gig, the amount of high talent out there makes this a buyers’ market. I’d suggest you try and develop your identity and style, be authentic and true to yourself and never ever undersell your services!” “Audio can be very abstract,” says Frontier’s Florianz. “Even where it’s in direct support of the game. Designers have to be able to imagine the player’s experience. A strong portfolio doesn’t require an explanation (though don’t hesitate to explain your thinking in an accompanying document). We tend to like bold choices, attention to detail and concise presentation.
“One mistake, especially made by enthusiastic juniors, is to re-score trailers for triple-A games. Chances are that audio guys / gals will have seen that trailer. Having your work compared to the very best in the industry doesn’t always work in your favour.”
For Codemasters, Tebbutt’s requirements are more specific. “We ask applicants for an audio-related degree and a decent, relevant portfolio. Applicants should really tailor their portfolio and CV towards the company they are applying for. For us, any high quality racing-related work normally goes down well.”
“Most audio designers have some kind of music background and, like other creative disciplines, I think a strong showreel is key,” says Playground’s Watson. “This should be used to showcase the very best of your work. Most importantly, you need to have a passion for games and sound.
“One thing I always say to people is do your research. If there is a game or a movie that you love the sound of, then try and find out about who designed the elements that you like and how they were made. Often, this will lead you down a path of discovering new techniques that you can utilise when you’re working on your show reel.”
“At the beginning of your career you are probably worried that what you have isn’t enough to show,” adds Frontier’s Florienz. “Resist the urge to over compensate, one really good example is better than adding anything that detracts from this. Quality is king, quantity not so much.
“Also, play a lot of games, especially those that are talked about in game audio circles, podcasts or that have won awards. Be analytical when you play games or watch films, even when you are just out and about: Always be listening.”
While some developers may have the budget to invest in their own audio studios in-house, others may not, or might need to branch out in order to get their audio finished. What do you do in those situations? One such place that offers this kind of outsourcing service is UK-based Sounding Sweet.
“Using an audio outsource company enables a developer to scale their business in-line with the project requirements and schedule,” says MD and audio producer at Sounding Sweet, Ed Walker. “It also gives them access to highly skilled and specialised audio professionals that have specific expertise in certain areas that may not be available in-house.
“Full-scale industry standard audio production facilities are expensive to purchase and maintain, therefore it often makes financial sense to hire an audio outsource company with the necessary facilities to provide recording alongside critical stereo and surround sound mixing work.”
Walker also hires new audio designers, as do many creative outsourcers. That means that not only are jobs available outside of development studios, but the jobs you can be working on might be more varied than those of a studio. So
what does Walker look for in his prospective employees?
“The three most important aspects I look for when recruiting an associate audio designer are: an analytical ear, a willingness to learn and an extraordinary passion for sound,” he says. “Playing games and analysing audio production techniques is something we do every day.
“A question often asked at interview is ‘what games are you currently playing, and what have you noticed about the sound?’
“In game audio, roles are often combined, which provides a great opportunity for an individual to work on a wide range of audio tasks.Working on a variety of jobs should appeal to anyone with a passion for sound.