Written by Thomas Watkeys: Audio Technology Engineer
Choose your weapons
What a time to be a sound designer. There are more tools for content creation than ever before with a multitude of options available. From one off sample library purchases to subscription services to itemized boutique digital amp emulators, there is so much to choose from that one can lose months to just finding and installing various libraries. There are also some awesome DAWS available, no single one is better than the next, the trick is to learn the one you want to use until you can operate it with your eyes closed. Each comes bundled with a few different basic content libraries – do your research and find the one that works for you – then LEARN it. The faster you can navigate and change things, the faster you can make changes based on what you feel. Having a core set of sample libraries/synths is also great for productivity. If you know your instruments and key-switches well, finding a specific sound is a matter of a few clicks rather than trolling through presets only to land “in the ballpark” of the sound you are after.
Build good libraries and templates
This isn’t really the glamorous side of sound design – but it really saves you so much time and pain in the long run. When you find instrument stacks that work for you, or samples that you use repeatedly, or even settings on a reverb that work just right for you – SAVE them and add them to a database that can be easily accessible in the future. If you have an instrument stack of a symphony orchestra setup – getting rough ideas from a guitar into a full orchestral score can take minutes rather than days. If you have reverbs and rough fader volumes set up too, you can get an impression early on as to what direction a melody needs to go in. Building a database of sound effects helps no end – we are forever making whoosh and sparkle sounds, most of which use the same base samples with some unique sounds added in for the detail depending on the context of the final sound.
Keep in the loop
It’s very easy to get locked into a routine way of designing and limiting your expectation of the available functionality of audio, especially on the web. Taking time to look at other work and other experiences designed by other people really helps to offer fresh ways of approaching a soundscape for a game. My role changed quite significantly when I became an Audio Technology Engineer as opposed to my former role as a Production Designer. Suddenly, I had to really focus on getting more out of the engines we were working on – this really ended up changing the way I saw my sounds functioning in the games I am working on. Every day, there is more power available to us and thus more ways to approach a game than ever before. Engines can really handle on the fly mixing and modulation of sounds – which has led me to granularize my final sounds a lot more than I would have before and rely on the engines to handle the modulation and mixing.
Contextualize as much as possible
Hearing the sounds in their space and with the visuals which they need to compliment is absolutely one of the most important things for design. One thing I have really leaned since working in this industry is matching the scale of the sound to the expected experience on screen. Given a pitch “make me a whoosh sound” I would go away and make the most full, detailed, rich whoosh sound that time would allow – however knowing that the sound is for a minor animation which has no bearing on the player’s experience instantly tells you that the sound needs to fit that expectation and be subtle so as not to take away from the moments which do need to be rich and full. You are baking a cake – if someone asks you to add some cherries, you wouldn’t put a whole cherry bush on it, you would only add one or two. Know what you are designing for and match the sound to that experience. Most of my post mixing is EQ-ing out frequencies that I have spent hours getting loads of details into because when I hear the sound in the context of the game, I realize it just needs to target a small part of the audio spectrum, not overload it.
Have other fun projects
It’s very hard to be a serious creative person all the time (well, at least in my case). For me, music and sound starts to lose its charm when you spend all your time homing in on things and cleaning up piano rolls so that your timing and velocities are perfect. Take time to play some cheesy 80’s songs on a synth, or do some field recording for a comedy video or write a hook for a fictitious pop song. In my case, I have a band outside of work which is a great creative avenue for me – I can try things there that I could never do for our products, but there are things I learn there that filter across to the day-to-day which can really help to make sounds even better. I love taking time to pick up an acoustic guitar at home and mindlessly singing pop songs with friends – it really helps to keep the magic of music real, something that one can lose when delivery and timelines come into the creative world