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Posted by on Oct 29, 2010 | 4 comments

Aaron Marks Special: Reader Questions

Aaron Marks in the driver seat of a Marine Corps Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) during field recording for Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising

This month has been awesome! Aaron Marks made a terrific special, which sadly ends today. Thanks to all the readers who sent his questions. Below are the answers to them.

Designing Sound Reader: How often do you use your musical background in sound designing a film or video game? Do you pitch certain hard FX or drones to musical notes to strike emotional chords in audiences?

Aaron Marks: I think I’m pretty much always in the ‘musical’ mindset when doing sound design, whether it’s recording, mixing and mastering or on a creative level. Music is definitely in my blood and I think, subconsciously at least, it’s always there when I’m doing any audio work. I definitely have some techniques where I ‘tune’ sound elements to be either pleasant or something a little more harsh. I also tend to pay attention to the music that is accompanying a scene or game level and often tune the sound effect to a note which blends well or I’ll go the opposite direction and detune it, especially for evil characters and their weapons, for example. You definitely want the audience to ‘feel’ the evilness and this is a great way to do it without being in their face about it.

In games especially, part of the goal is for all of the sound effects to feel natural to the game and not bring any undue attention to themselves. By doing this, the ones you want to really stand out will definitely be noticeable and have more impact. I’m always very careful for sounds like tractor beams, engines, humming machinery or ambience to tune them so they all work together and with the music.

DSR: How loud do you monitor when working 8 hour days (if you do that)?

AM: 8 hour days…what are those? It’s more like 12 to 14 hour days sometimes when the clock is ticking. Ear fatigue is definitely something on my mind when sitting in front of monitors all day. I do listen during the creation phase at a relatively low level, the volume control never really goes over 2 or 3, all to protect my ears and my sanity. But, that’s not to say I don’t turn it up and feel it a bit more at times. After I’ve created all of the sounds and before I deliver them to a client, I do a final mastering step at full volume to make sure they’re doing what I wanted them to do. And even then, I don’t call them ‘done’ until I return the next morning and give everything a fresh listen.

DSR: What are your staple pieces of equipment? Go-to EQ, mic, compressors? Does each different sound require a different piece of equipment?

AM: For field recording, my trusty Fostex FR2 is the first thing I grab and then whatever mic suits the situation. My ‘go to’ mic is the Neumann RSM191but I also drag along a Sennheiser 416, Røde NTG2, NTG3 and the NT4 and a couple Countryman B3 lavalieres if I anticipate the need. As far as using compressors and EQ, I don’t use them much and don’t use anything special, I’m afraid.

I’ve gone entire weeklong recording sessions with the 191, recording vehicle Foley and interior sounds while underway and never thought twice about using another mic for any of it. But, we also had other recordists and gear to capture engine, exhaust, suspension and track/wheel sounds since the 191 wasn’t practical in those situations. The type of gear you ultimately use, I think, definitely depends on what your are recording. Quiet ambience, gunshots/explosions, vehicles – all have their challenges and that definitely requires the right tool for the job for each of them.

DSR: What determines if you are going to record an effect in stereo or mono or both?

AM: I generally try to record everything in stereo regardless of the client requirements and convert it to mono during editing if needed. My thought is, if I’m making the effort to be out in the field to record sounds, I want to capture them in the most natural perspective which will give me the most flexibility when editing. It’s definitely easier to make a stereo recording mono than the other way around.

Now, that’s not to say that I don’t record in mono. If the client is very specific about how a sound is recorded, then I will definitely do as they ask. Typically when I’m doing multi-track recording of vehicles, for example, there will be mono recordings of the engine, exhaust, suspension and wheels. Since these will be mixed in some fashion as stereo or surround, mono works perfect. Weapons recordings are another good example as well, especially when capturing multiple perspectives to recreate localized shot sounds. Video games make use of mono sounds anchored to specific points which give a player clues to its location – and these need to be in mono.

DSR: As close to the sound as possible just doesn’t make sense to me sometimes. What distances do you record sounds from?

AM: There are many reasons why you’d record as close as possible – subtle sounds you want to emphasize, to exaggerate the sound more, to take advantage of the mics proximity effect, for perspective and for loud background sounds you want to minimize. For me, mic placement depends on the sound I’m trying to record and what my ultimate goal for the recording is. If I’m using it as an element in something else, the more it doesn’t sound like what it is, the better and ‘major’ close up is my choice. But, if my objective is to capture the sound realistically, then I’ll judge that distance at the time and do it from there.

Perspective is very important in field recording. Most sound library effects have been recorded at a close perspective because that is the most useable. But taking a sound recorded up close, lowering the volume, adding some space to it with delay or reverb, adding a touch of ‘ambience’ and rolling of a bit of the high end still won’t give you a believable ‘distant’ perspective. If I’m looking for that specifically, then I will record it that way.

DSR: What essential “industry standard” plug-ins and manufacturers are there, which are widely used especially for sound design work? Just like there are those “standard” plug-ins in music production and digital audio engineering like Waves stuff, Massey plug-ins etc.

AM: Personally, I don’t really see a difference between the two – music production and sound design are the same, well, at least to me anyway. I use the same equipment, software and plug-ins for both and what I use depends on what I’m trying to do with the sound. I’ve created sounds using everything from Nuendo, SONAR, Vegas Video and ACID to Audition and Sound Forge. I’ve even used ‘music’ programs like Kontakt and Cameleon for sound design. I consider everything a ‘tool’ and grab whatever I need out of the shed to stay fresh and unique.

DSR: The Neumann RSM191 seems very popular among the sound design professionals. Do you have any suggestions on reliable and good quality shotgun microphones currently on the market with maybe a more beginner-friendly price tag to start field recording with, like the Røde NTG-2? I guess the AKG 414 still goes as the all-around condenser? Cheers, -Just starting in sound design-

AM: Yeah, I love the 191 and always have really good luck with it. I highly recommend it! Budget wise, there are some very nice mics out there – the Røde NTG2 is definitely a good one for the price, I still use mine as well as the NTG3. The MXL FR303 and FR304’s are worth a look as well, especially for the price. They can’t compare to higher priced mics of course, but for $100, they at least get you started. Every mic has its own ‘character’ and ‘color’ and you should never select a mic with the ‘its expensive, it must be good’ attitude. I’ve had good results with some of MXL’s products so I’m not afraid to use ‘em. Plus, since they’re so economical, you can put them in places you wouldn’t dare put an expensive mic!

DSR: Mr. Marks, I have a question for you as well. I’ve just finished reading your “Complete Guide to Game Audio” and noticed that you refer to a sound designer and a composer as a sort of one-trick pony. You give justification for this on numerous occasions as having the ability to “provide a one-stop shop” for designers. Do you foresee this being the way audio is done for another good long while, or do you foresee a specialization in the industry like that of film, in that separate organizations/people are contracted/hired for sfx and music separately?

AM: That’s a great question and a difficult one to answer with any certainty. I have noticed a trend toward specialization and I’ve even adapted my own business profile to keep up. But, for every company I’ve done business with and job I’ve worked on that was compartmentalized, I’ve seen just as many instances where the one man band profile is very much alive and kicking. If you compose and do sound design, you have a great excuse to offer both as services. If you only do one, the other option is to partner with someone else who does the other very well and offer your services as a team. Either way, you’re covered and won’t lose jobs because you weren’t prepared. And, after all, you’re not only in this to contribute some great audio work but to make a career and a living at it as well so you shouldn’t let any opportunity slip away.

DSR: I also have a question I’m not entirely sure has a good answer. Say I have a particular passion for a specific type of audio (namely vehicles). Would it be unwise to tailor my demo reel to focus on this passion? I realize doing so would narrow down my potential employers by doing this, but I’m trying to gauge if that’s truly a bad thing.

AM: Specializing in anything is definitely a double-edged sword. The more services you can provide, of course, the more income potential you have. But, by doing one thing really, really well, so much so that you become the one person anyone thinks about when they need that specific thing, then you can monopolize that segment of the industry and do very well for yourself.

I know some sound designers and field recordists who specialize in vehicles or weapons and they definitely get a lot of jobs because of it. If you’ve got the confidence that you can truly be that good, I say go for it! But, in the meantime, be open to other things, keep the jobs coming in, learn additional skills which might translate to making your passion even better, reinvest your income on top-notch equipment and work towards that ultimate goal. There’s nothing that says you have to only do that ‘one’ thing until you become the master but definitely plan your path and stick to it if it means that much to you.

DSR: Finally, will you be at GDC this year? I’m trying to decide if it’s worth the money to go at this point in time.

AM: I always say I’m going but never know until a few days before whether I can get away – so, it’ll be a surprise. But, to help your decision, GDC has never been a waste of time for me. Getting out of the studio for a few days is always a good thing. Seeing old friends and making new ones is great. The conference is a great way to catch up on what’s happening in the industry and the expo floor is perfect for checking out new tools, current games and even job opportunities.

Just remember, if you do go, GDC is what YOU make of it. You can walk around for a week with your head down and waste your time OR you can mingle with all the other people passionate about the industry, talk to everyone (and I mean EVERYONE!) – especially the folks in line for coffee or sitting at your lunch table, pass out business cards, collect them and then follow up when you get home. I’m one of those people who are fairly introverted and I used to have to force myself to open up and be a part of the show. If you are a natural ‘people person’ then all the better, but work at it a bit if you aren’t and you’ll be very surprised with what can happen when you do.

Oh, and if you see me there, definitely wander over and say ‘hi’. I’d love to meet you!


  1. Thanks for sharing these answers, the software answer is interesting as you mention you use multiple DAWs to complete your work.

    I am interested more in Foley and Sound Effects rather than the musical aspect (as I’m not very good at it). Which DAW would you recommend a good starting point considering I am just starting out? I have tired free software but plugins are limited.


  2. Thank you very much for answering my questions, Aaron. Best of luck to you and your projects in the future.

  3. Aaron, thank you very much for answering all of my questions! You’re too kind. Hopefully I’ll run into you at GDC, or perhaps somewhere else.

  4. Always glad to share. :)

    @ Adrian – You didn’t say whether you were Mac or PC, choices are different for each. Basically, you’re looking for a multi-track program where you can layer sound elements, adjust volume, eq and add basic effects (like reverb, delay, chorus, flange, etc) AND an audio editing program that will let you clean things up, make final adjustments and convert to the final needed format. For multi-track, something like Vegas Video, SONAR or even ACID will work and for an audio editor, Sound Forge and Adobe Audition are favorites – or there is a nice freeware program called Audacity that isn’t too shabby. I’d poke around to see which ones have the feature/costs that will work for you.

    Good luck!


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