Frank Bry Special: Exclusive Interview
It’s time to start with the articles of Frank Bry‘s month. Here is a really cool interview with him. We talked about several things, including his career, the tools he uses, creativity, gaming, and more.
Designing Sound: Frank, please tell us how you started in sound design and describe the evolution of your career.
Frank Bry: My career in sound design has been an evolution, a progression, and a series of events that finally led to sound effects recording and design. My background began in music. For many years I was a bass player and along the way I learned to play the drums, keyboard, and guitar. I have always loved sounds and was aware of how they made me feel. After playing in many rock bands of all kinds, I found my interests progressing more towards the technical/recording side of things so I opened my own 8-track analog recording studio in Massachussetts. I built the studio myself from the ground up in an old barn and when I decided to sell it was a full blown 24-track recording studio. During this time I was writing and recording my own material as an aspiring songwriter. The ups and downs of the music industry forced me to expand my business to include live sound. In 1989 I decided it was time to shake things up and head west.
I moved from Boston to Seattle in June 1989 to be a songwriter. I had an Emulator III digital sampler and sequencer that I wrote music on, and I was always looking for new musical instrument sounds. Because I was not earning a living as a songwriter, I had to find a new way to pay the bills. I started hanging out at a local music store that sold E-Mu equipment. They noticed that I knew the Emulator III inside and out and helped me get in touch with others in the area who had the same sampler. After a while, a few Seattle based commercial composers found out that a new “EIII guy” was in town who had fresh samples. All of a sudden I was getting phone calls from these composers and other Post Production facilities in the Seattle area asking me to help with their sound effects design even though they had no clue that I had no idea what I was doing. I would haul my huge Emulator III keyboard all over the city and design sounds, drink coffee, get a free lunch, and go home with a check. Sounded good to me! I was a sound effects designer. I also had the good fortune to be hired as a recording engineer/MIDI sequencing guru on various album projects with Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Marty Jourard of The Motels, Micheal Gettel, Narada, and Private Music.
With every up comes a down, and by 1993 I was scratching my head trying to figure out how I was going to pay the rent. I had lots of time on my hands so after trading some equipment for a used portable DAT machine and stereo microphone, I ran around Seattle and recorded whatever I could. I recorded tons airplanes, factories, water, trains, tools, boats, traffic, etc. As soon as I thought I had enough material, I compiled the sounds and started peddling them to various CD sound effects library companies. I finally got a bite with a major producer of CD sound effects libraries. After the deal, I had quite a collection of CD library material to work with for my next career phase… video games. I was never a big gamer, but I was fascinated with the idea of sounds and events happening in real time being dynamically controlled by the player and game experience.
I had some initial contacts with various game companies but nothing came of them. I found out it’s not easy to get in the video game industry so I gave up that idea for a while. I kept on recording, designing, and selling my own sounds. Then, completely by accident, a friend from an album project I had worked on some years earlier, introduced me to the Audio Director at Starwave Corporation, a new media start-up funded by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Starwave was working on CD-ROM multimedia titles with Sting, Clint Eastwood, Peter Gabriel, and The Muppets, along with major sports and entertainment Internet websites. They were looking for some Emulator III digital samplers and… a sound designer. So by late 1994 I was Senior Sound Designer at Starwave and worked on those titles and a new game called Castle Infinity, the very first online multiplayer video game. During the two years at Starwave I met and worked with some amazingly talented people. One of these guys, who was a great friend, went on to work at Humongous Entertainment as a producer. He called me up one day and told me a division of Humongous called Cavedog was making the next generation of stategy games called Total Annihilation. He arranged for me to meet with the Lead Designer, Chris Taylor, and the Audio Director, Jeremy Soule, to talk about the sound design. The meeting went great and the next thing I knew I was designing sound effects for the game. I had already left Starwave so the gig was perfeclty timed. I worked furiously for the next nine months designing hundreds of sounds and expanding my knowledge. It was quite the experience—my first contract game.
Shortly after I delivered the final assets for Total Annihilation, I moved to North Idaho, built a studio, and landed Dungeon Siege, Neverwinter Nights, and Metroid Prime. By now I had some decent gear and I continued to record my own sound effects and to sell some of them to the major SFX library players along with archiving my own SFX for a possible library release of my own. I did release a CD-ROM of Emulator III samples back in 1993 so I had some idea of how to go about making a sound library product. By 1998, the Internet had hit in a big way and I started therecordist.com as a vehicle to promote my sound design services for video games. To get traffic to my site, I gave away free original sound effects in mp3 format. Funny, we were on 14.4 modems back then and we still downloaded stuff… slowly.
I have really enjoyed my career. From musician to songwriter to recording engineer to sound designer and sound effects recordist—it’s been a great ride, and I have worked with some amazingly talented people.
DS: Did you have a mentor early in your career? Any specific source of learning that you consider crucial in taking your career to another level?
FB: I can’t say I have had just one mentor, I’ve had many. I studied film sound a bit and listened to movies on laser disc. I wanted to familiarize myself with the way films sounded especially sci-fi and action flicks. I was constantly amazed at what these guys came up with for that “Larger Than Life” sound and tried to figure out how they did it. I was influenced mostly by the wonderful people I met and worked with in all types of audio situations. Audio people are truly amazing characters. I think we have a special connection and are really passionate about our craft. I was fortunate enough to meet some guys who believed in me and helped me out at times when I really needed it. I think they also liked the fact that there was someone crazier than they were, and it comforted them to know they were somewhat sane in this crazy business. On any project, I tried to make audio creation enjoyable and fun for the people I worked with. There are a few out there who know I am deeply thankful to them for believing in me and taking me under their wing.
What took it to another level for me was just really listening to the world around me. I was a musician at heart and always picked up on tones and how they vibrated together either beautifully or horribly. When I started to record sound effects I really began to notice how much sound is out there. Many times we are focused on other things so you can be outside raking the lawn and not even notice an owl hooting in the woods or a woodpecker headbanging a tree or a soft wind gust swirling the tree leaves above you. After people meet me and hang for a while, they eventually call me up and tell me they heard the coolest sound here or an amazing sound there and think to themselves, wow, Frank would have loved to record that! I am constantly listening even when I’m just lazing around or chopping wood. The other day after I plowed my driveway of snow and I was walking back from the barn, I noticed some gravel exposed in the driveway. I heard a massive swarm of tiny birds flying around and eating the exposed frozen dirt. I tried to record them but everytime I moved too close they would spook and swarm away, come back and swarm away. I drove them nuts when all they wanted was to eat some good dirt.
DS: You have worked mostly in the video games industry. Why this preference? What do you like about doing sound for games?
FB: Seems that way doesn’t it. I’ve worked on 36 titles since Castle Infinity and somehow it just keeps going. When I initially began creating sounds for video games I really did not know what I was getting into. I knew that a sound effect was needed for a particular event in a game so I set out to discover how they all work together as one seamless audio landscape. It was quite a learning curve, but over time I began to develop a forward thinking approach to my sound design. How will this sound work against that sound, how many sounds do I need to create that event, and so on. I also found out that I really love making fantasy-type sounds—monsters, spaceships, futuristic weapons, etc. These sounds require lots of character. Coming up with these sounds in my head and then creating them is one of the things I enjoy most. I also like the challenge of creating a bunch of sounds, hooking them up in the game, and the final balance pass. The ultimate moment for me is when I launch the game during the mix balance phase and I click the start screen, and after weeks of tweeks, the game audio and balance just feels right. Then and only then is it time to go home and rest.
DS: What is the best advice you can give to an aspiring/professional sound designer?
FB: This is probably the most asked question that I get. I get emails from people all over the world asking me, “How do I break into the game audio business?” Well, I can only tell you what has worked for me. Dream big. Be yourself. Believe in yourself. Hopefully you can have others believe in you also. Okay, now for the technical answer. Keep going, practice your craft, never stop unless you want to. I have spent years messing around with sounds. I was always trying different ideas and approaches. I studied and read hundreds of articles on sound design. Magazines were the main source of information at that time. I have many notebooks with photocopies of articles dating back to the mid 80’s. I no longer do that kind of stuff because I’m very busy, but there was a time when I was fascinated with gathering all these articles. It was worth it. I learned a great deal.
Do more than just one thing if you can. I’ve done most all of it at one time or another. I was a professional bass player, songwriter, built and ran a 24-track recording studio, was a live sound engineer and a studio engineer. I was a Emulator dealer, sound developer, synthesizer programmer and a MIDI tech. I ran a CD duplication service for a while, published a music industry newspaper and also fixed Mac computers. These are things I wanted to do, but I also gained a great amount of knowledge and skill in business, marketing, and client relations.
The most important advice I can give is to do this because you love it, and it brings you joy. If it’s part of you and you can never get enough, you are on the right track.
DS: How do you stay creative? Do you have any kind of method/habits to enhance your creativity as sound designer? Where does your inspiration come from?
FB: Over the years I’ve learned that no matter how hard you push, when you are creatively stuck, you are stuck. I take a break, walk away for a while. You can’t force creativity and sometimes the juices are just not flowing. Other times I will do something else. During my typical day there are always ten things that need to get done. Whether it’s backing up the hard drives, updating my sound library database or cleaning the studio, it’s got to be done. When the FORCE is not with you, it can be a welcome time.
I also take time to wander outside and just look around. It helps to breathe fresh air and adjust my eyes to something other than a computer screen. It also gives me the alone time to think about how to approach a sound element or a mix. You can lose perspective if you stay locked up inside all day.
My inspiration comes from my sub woofer. When it sounds good, I feel good. Must be the bass player in me. Seriously, I get inspiration from the sounds in the world around me and and from the feedback I get from my clients about my work. A long time ago I asked Cliff at Epic Games why he hired me to make some sound effects and he said, “It’s because the demo sounds you sent me totally destroyed my sub woofer and I had to buy a bigger one.” Strangely enough, I’m inspired by that too.
DS: What are your main tools in the studio and in the field?
FB: I have a Avid Pro Tools HD 2 Accel rig with a 192 interface and a 2009 MacPro. I love Pro Tools for editing hundreds of small files in a take at a time. I have most of the plug-ins available and use some quite a bit in mastering the SFX. Waves L2, MV2, H-Comp, C4 and PuigTec EQP-1A are my favorites right now. I also use Soundtoys V4 TDM, Eventide Anthology II and GRM Tools for wild FX stuff and sweetening up sounds as needed. With the recent release of Pro-Tools 9, I am now able to have roughly the same editing system on my MacBook Pro for when I want to work on site at a game company.
I’m a big fan of Soundminer, and I’ve been with that program since day one. I could not do my work efficiently without it. It makes organizing, finding, and importing assets into Pro Tools so much easier and quicker. I can recall the days when I had all my assets on CD-ROMs. I had dozens of them and had to load them one at a time when I wanted to search for a sound effect. The Soundminer Metadata capabilities are outstanding. They are specific to Soundminer but some of the fields will read in other asset management systems. I do so much Metadata work that I have to occasionally give myself a Metadata-free day just to mentally recover from all the text data entry.
The past couple of years I’ve also learned and use Avid’s Structure virtual instument sampler. I am able to create sounds like I did back in the days of my Emulator IIIX (which I still have in my studio). I stretch and layer sounds across the keyboard and make really huge and unique sounds with my own 24-Bit 96kHz source material. I like it because it’s all real time pitching and effects processing and being a average keyboard player I can “play” my sounds back onto a track in Pro Tools. I created most of the “designed” thunder sounds in my Thunderstorm HD Library this way. I was able to get exactly the right pitches, time stretching, and filter envelopes that I wanted in real time instead of waiting for Pro Tools to pitch it with a plug-in. Playing a chord with multiple thunder sounds layered is pretty cool.
I use BIAS Peak Pro 6.2 a lot for some of the longer length file editing and mastering. It also comes in handy in prepping sound effects for my blog. At times it’s easier and quicker to load Peak Pro, top and tail, master and save. Sound done. I have so many recordings that sometimes I just want to lighten the load and work quickly without making a full on Pro Tools session when I can do it with a two-track digital editor. I like Peak Pro and have been using it since it first came out.
My small studio is set up for 5.1 surround work. I have a set of Blue Sky speakers for the surround and a pair Mackies for the stereo mains. Both are always on so when I’m working in 5.1 I can do a fold down and listen on both sets in stereo. My studio is right next to my home theatre in the basement and I have a optical line run from the Avid 192 to my stereo and can play a encoded file. I just make the adjustment to play through the stereo and walk out the door to the main theatre room for an instant reference for bass management adjustments and the like.
My recording gear consists of a just few microphones and recorders. My current favorite microphone is the Sanken CSS-5 stereo shotgun. To me, it has a sweet, warm sound. It also has two different stereo width settings and one mono that I can switch to on the spot very quickly, depending on the source, without a lot of bulky external matrix boxes. It is kind of heavy so when I record alone and can only use one hand to hold the mic on a boom I get very tired and sore. Most of the time I use it on a stand and to me, it always sounds the best. I also have a AT-835ST stereo shotgun that is very light and easy to hold on a 16 foot boom. It also sounds pretty good for a mid-priced microphone. I just recently picked up a Sennhieser MKH-416 shotgun microphone and love it. Each microphone has it’s own Rycote and boom system. They are always set up and ready to go and record. I like to work fast so having the gear ready to launch at a moments notice works well for me.
I use a Sound Devices 702 recorder which I love. It’s easy to use, sounds great, and is very sturdy. I also have a Fostex FR-2 that I do not use that much, only when I want to have multiple microphones recording at the same time. I love the limiter on The FR-2. You can hit the input pretty hard and it holds up. It was my first high definition recorder, and I have fond memories using it to record hours of thunderstorms at my old mountain cabin.
I also use a Sony PCM-D1. It’s a wonderful, compact recorder with great mics. I do a lot of recording on the fly with it and get awesome results. It’s always ready at the front door in case I need to run out and record something. I keep a Sony D-50 recorder in my SUV at all times. It’s a great compact device that I like having with me on the road. I expect the unexpected. Passing sirens, traffic, trains, hotels, anything cool to record while I’m away from home.
DS: I’ve seen you work from a really beautiful and quiet (at least it seems) place in the north of Idaho. How does this affect your work as sound designer?
FB: North Idaho is a beautiful part of the world. I really love living and working here. It’s in a section of the state call the Panhandle, way up north near Canada. It’s just far away enough, but not too far, to get to a small city or Seattle. There only around 40,000 people in the whole county which is quite large in area. When I first moved here in 1997, I bought a very rustic hand-built log cabin three miles up a rough dirt road at 3500 feet above sea level. It was awesome! Very peaceful. I lived there for five years. One day I decided to shake things up again and headed back to Seattle for a while. I kept a house in Idaho while I was in Seattle. It was not a permanent move. I just wanted to float around for while and that’s when I ended up working full time for Gas Powered Games on Supreme Commander. When that game was finished I headed back to Idaho and bought a small seven acre ranch just outside of a town called Sandpoint.
I think it really helps my creativity by being here. It’s quiet and peaceful, and I can keep my mind and hearing clear for when I really need to hunker down and get to work. It is a little out of the way (which I like) and Seattle is only a 5 1/2 hour drive. Also, about six years ago we got a Starbucks so when I need a little taste of my favorite city, Seattle, I can drive the seven miles to town and grab a Latte. Seriously though, I do lose touch with friends and clients at times, but with the Internet, it’s a lot easier to say hello and see what’s going on.
Most importantly, I live here to live the lifestyle I want to live. I’ve been fortunate enough that my work is my work and my life is my life and most of the time they are one in the same.
DS: You work as freelance, right? Could you tell us how typically you deal with clients and do your work from home? What advantages you find about freelance vs in-house job?
FB: Yes, I do work freelance and have most of my career. When I worked on Total Annihilation I had to drive up to the Cavedog office to get material or deliver completed assets (I lived in Seattle at the time). The Internet was chugging along with modems at the time unless you worked at a big company like Starwave or Microsoft which had T-1 lines. It was actually good in a way. I was able to work without the “always on” internet connection that at times can be a distracton. I would go days without dialog with the developer and got a lot of work done. If they had a rush on a sound request or something, they had to call me on the telephone. Cell phones were not as common as they are now. It gave me a buffer to not freak out and figure out how to handle the “need it right now” situation. Somehow, even with the buffer, it all got done on time. Funny, it seems that now with the ultra fast moving pace of the “wired” lifestyle, time is compressed and projects are way more stressful at times.
Freelance has always been my preference. I’ve only had two full time jobs (totalling 3 years) my whole life so it works for me. I understand the in-house job thing. For a lot of people and game companies, it works really well. Some people like the security of having a full time job with benefits, etc. and some people have families and feel the need to have a paycheck. When you work on a game you are part of a team and being on-site full time gives the team a comforting feeling that audio is part of their family. The places I’ve worked in-house developed multiple games at one time and the audio department was to service the whole company not just one game team. I’ve never had a back up plan (a Plan B) and also believe that any security you think you might have is all in your head anyway. Things change on a dime in the game industry and you never know when you will lose your job. I’ve been fortunate enough that my repeat clients consider me part of the team even though I’m working out in the woods.
I’m what you would call a freedom seeker. I really like to work my own hours and at my own pace. I also really like to take the time to smell the roses and do nothing. A really key point is I don’t have to shave everyday. One of the most important aspects of freelancing or contracting is self-discipline. Because there are no defined hours, no boss scheduling your tasks or time, self-discipline is absolutely required. No way around it. It can be a real eye opener for some. Some days I don’t even get around to recording or sound design. There is so much involved with all the business tasks like accounting, marketing, web design, networking, etc., I sometimes have to book myself in my calender just to get the checkbook balanced. When you work for yourself you really don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to. No getting up in the morning, driving to work, boring meetings, phone calls and such, but to be able to live the life I want requires self-discipline. I make every effort to get something done every day. To me, my freedom is worth the price.
This is a lifestyle for me, built into my DNA I think. I have a long family history of self-employment. No matter how hard I try to change it, I can’t. You are who you are. This is not to say I have not enjoyed my time working in-house because I have. I’ve met some wonderful people and a lot of them have become life long friends which is the most important thing to me. Everything has its time and purpose.
DS: Some time ago, we talked about your sound effects library project called “The Recordist”. How has it been going since then? What’s coming in the future?
FB: It’s been going great. The response to my new “Ultimate” collections has been fantastic. They are a hell of lot of work and take many years sometimes to put together. It has been totally worth it because it places just about all of the sounds I record for a specific category in one place. This is good for my sound design work also. I have tens of thousands of custom sounds and at times it seems as if they are all over the place and hard to find. These massive collections organize and categorize the sounds all together in a cohesive package. People seem to really love them and use them in their work with great results.
I’ve been playing with the idea of offering “SoundBox Singles.” These are the longer length HD ambiences and other unique sounds that I would like to offer, but they don’t fit into my current library structure. I would love to hear some feedback on this to see if this is worth the time and effort. I have wind, water, machinery, etc. that I think could be very useful sounds for sound designers.
I am working on my next SoundBox HD Pro release called Ultimate Fire. It’s going to be massive! All kinds of fire whooshes, bursts, and burning. From small propane stoves, torches, and gas explosions to burning bushes, forest fires and 30 foot high flame bursts. It has been quite an experience—exhilarating, hard work, challenging, and even frightening at times. I’ve been recording fire on and off since 2007. As far as I can tell now, it will be three seperate collections that can be purchased as a group with a discounted bundle price. I always need fire in my game sound work and this collection should satisfy anyone with the need for over-the-top fire sounds.
I have many smaller collections I will be releasing over the coming months including: gun foley, strange servos, prop planes, cars, and explosions. Also on the horizon are a few more Ultimate collections and they include: wood, water splashes, metal, and glass. It’s been a very busy year with all these new sound effects releases, but I’m having the time of my life and business is good.
DS: What is the project that you’ve enjoyed the most? Do you have any favorite genre or kind of sounds to work with?
FB: Wow, that’s a tough question. I’ve enjoyed almost all of my projects to some degree or another. Supreme Commander was great, but it was grueling. If I have to pick one it would be Demigod. It wasn’t a huge game in terms of sales and audio assets but it turned out beautiful in my mind. I worked with my good friend and composer, Howard Mostrom, on that one, and he added a beautiful harp-like music element to the UI that made the rest of the game come alive. He also did all of the sound effect and music integration and did a wonderful job.
I really had fun with the sound effects design. It was a lot like the sound effects design I did for Dungeon Siege but had that Supreme Commander strategy feel to it. There were all sorts of weapons, spells, ambient FX, and out of this world creatures. I ended up using all sorts organic and synthetic elements to make some of the craziest sounds I’ve ever made. There was just about everything you would expect in a Fantasy/Strategy game. Huge maps, large and small characters, strange beasts, and the Demigod’s which where a lot of fun to create. My favorite was the Rook. He was this massive wooden, walking structure and had a big hammer he swung around and when it hit—watch out sub woofer! We had also just completed the transition from XACT to FMOD as our middleware sound engine and it allowed us to do much more with the sound cues during gameplay.
My favorite genre is definitely Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I have worked on my share of shooters such as the just resurrected Duke Nukem, but I must say I love designing fantasy creatures and weapons. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of 5.1 cinematic work and been having a blast. Surround really opens the sound field up and you can really get your head spinning with sound effects design and mixing. I started doing surround at my home studio in 2007 on Metorid Prime III and have learned a lot since then. You can go too far sometimes, and I’ve finally got the hang of working 5.1 mixes in Pro Tools.
DS: How much do you play games? Any favorites?
FB: Most people are surprised when I tell them that I’m only a part time gamer now. I used to play a lot more back when I was starting out in game audio. Even before that I was really into flight simulators. I am a big aviation buff and have always wanted to learn to fly. When I was a kid I thought an umbrella would work when I jumped off my tree fort but no, it did not. I played Microsoft Flight Simulator and Falcon 4.0 quite a bit. I did and still do play the games I work on and others like them to see what others have been doing or have done with game audio.
I remember learning how to play Total Annihilation. It was tough for me, but I had to because that’s how I designed the sounds for the game. I would play the game and the units, and at the same time, play sound effects on my EIII keyboard trying to get a good sound. Now when I work, Quicktime movies are made for me by a person who really knows how to work the game, and I design to them.
I used to play Diablo and Starcraft a long time ago. Maybe it was because I was working on similar titles, but all the same, I really enjoyed those games. I was secretly studying them. I played Unreal games; I loved those. I played my share of Metroid Prime until my Game Cube died. The sound in that game is really smooth and totally fit the game environment. I got quite proficient at Dungeon Siege even though I never made it all the way through without a cheat code.
DS: When playing videogames… How much do you care about the sound of the games you play? Has your sound design position changed the way you play? How?
FB: I really care. I think the sound is, without a doubt, the most under appreciated part of most game experiences. The casual gamer will not notice the sound that much but maybe that’s good. They are inside the experience and it feels right to them. I know some hard core gamers who really have awesome audio systems, and they really appreciate great audio. They believe it makes them a better gamer.
When I was working with Howard Mostrom at Gas Powered Games, he would play the game most of the time. I would listen and then, we would tweak things. I’m better at critical listening if I do not play the game at the same time. I sit back and listen, sometimes look at the screen and other times not. I have mixed records that way also. At times I would go in the next room with the door open or walk around the room on playback. Your mind can play tricks on you every so often when you are staring at the computer or a TV screen, and it’s good to get a different audio perspective. It’s almost like your mind plays back what you are expecting, not what’s really there. Make sense? Don’t say anything to Howard, but most of the time I was just surfing the Internet while I was sitting behind him as he worked his butt off.
DS: Finally, could you tell us about current projects? What’s next for Frank Bry?
FB: Lately I’ve been focusing on my sound effects libraries, getting them edited and mastered for release. I’m finding out it’s almost a full time job looking after the business aspect and recording new material and organizing it. Games, therefore, have taken a back seat for the moment. I do have a few game projects scheduled for 2011 and beyond. Who knows where life and work will take me next and I look forward to it.