As usual, below is an interview with this month’s guest, Rodney Gates.
Designing Sound: How did you get started and How has been the evolution of your career since then?
Rodney Gates: In 1996 I attended the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Tempe, Arizona. At the time, the focus of the school was on audio / music production with a little bit of post and live sound thrown in, but nothing in the way of video game audio really existed back then.
I interned at a large recording studio in Manhattan for a brief time before realizing that it wasn’t for me. I didn’t wish to slug it out getting coffee for people and eventually serving as an assistant engineer for something like 5-10 years until finally “making it”, so with no other real options at the time, I left it behind and returned to my day job for a while, always thinking about what niche in audio could turn it around for me.
After years of playing Commodore 64, early PC, and pre-Playstation console games, I never, ever imagined that game sound design could actually be a career choice until popping the discs for Medal of Honor: Allied Assault into my PC, back in 2002.
Never before had I played a game that felt so richly-detailed in it’s soundscape and musical soundtrack. Though I’m sure they were out there, none really featured WWII, which was such a hot topic at the time with shows like Saving Private Ryan and the miniseries Band of Brothers around.
I was just awe-struck; it was then when the bug bit me. I needed to get into this industry.
I purchased my first SFX collection, Hollywood Edge’s “The Edge Edition”, a 4-disc library of general effects, to kick off my demo. Then I picked up a used stereo AT-825 on eBay with a Rycote windscreen, bought a Sound Devices USBPre and with my old crash-happy Dell laptop, went out into the world to record what I needed for three, 2-minute, audio-only “stories” that I used as the main portion of my demo reel. One story was science-fiction, one a jungle adventure, and one a monologue of a sniper preparing to take out a high-profile target.
This became a lot of fun, and took about a year to get everything I needed (while working full-time). Any sound effects I didn’t have or couldn’t be designed with my one library had to be recorded, so I planned field sessions like road trips to remote places in Arizona for ambience, or borrowing a friend’s hunting rifle to record all of the mechanical functionality in my clothes closet, etc. I remember one scene I was working on required multiple cars to pull up in the rain, let out passengers, then drive away, but since we didn’t get much rain in Phoenix, I had to get crafty with a 5-gallon bucket of water. A friend poured it slowly off of a 6 ft. brick fence onto the concrete below, which I later edited into the scene to mimic the sound of tires driving through rain-drenched streets.
These fits of creativity were necessary when faced with limited resources, possibly how Ben Burtt might have felt when working on the first Star Wars film in the 70’s (although there’s no comparison between his brilliance and me). They definitely are some of the most precious memories I have.
So actually getting into the game industry? Luck of the draw, really. After reading one of the only game audio books available at the time, Aaron Marks’ The Complete Guide to Game Audio back in 2002, I started bugging the author with emails and MP3 versions of what I was working on. Finally, using Gamasutra’s developer lists, I mailed a slew of CD-Rs off to several studios, not really knowing one from another. This was before LinkedIn too, so I didn’t know anyone in the audio departments at these studios.
After a few months, I heard back from one person at a place called Sammy Studios (a developer I almost didn’t mail a disc to, due to what I thought was a silly name). That person was Paul Lackey, working there at the time. He liked my demo and though they might have a position open up eventually, and if I were still interested, he’d keep me in mind.I couldn’t believe it was as simple as that. However, it was one long 6-month wait!
I finally got an interview as the position became available, and fortunately, I was hired on as an Associate Audio Designer. I say fortunately because traditionally there are paths such as quality assurance and / or customer service positions that may eventually land a spot like that, but it typically doesn’t happen quickly. I was able to bypass those avenues and get right to work.
Since those early days, I have continued to learn and grow. Sammy Studios became High Moon, which was independent for a short time as they shopped for a publisher to release Darkwatch. Then, High Moon was bought by parent company Vivendi Universal and we produced Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Conspiracy.
When Vivendi merged and became part of Activision | Blizzard, we started work on Transformers: War For Cybertron. When that game was nearly complete, I left High Moon for an opportunity at Sony Online Entertainment where I currently serve as Audio Director.
I am still very much in the trenches of day-to-day content creation, while managing several titles at once, with all manner of different requirements here at Sony. Some are Facebook games, some use Flash exclusively, while others may be live products that have been up for over a decade using older technology. With San Diego being our headquarters, many of the projects come through here in some fashion, so it is definitely a lot to keep track of and ensure they are being developed with the best soundtrack they can have.
DS: Did you have a mentor or any special source of learning early in your career?
RG: Like many of us in this field, even before we realized it, a unifying film captured our attention: Star Wars. George Lucas’ introduction of the instant-classic space opera saga blew me away, well before I knew anything about sound or how it could be used in such ways, completely out of context with it’s actual source or real-life reason for existing, to deliver a never-before-heard, yet entirely organic and believable experience, pulling me into the story like no other movie.
Before I ever heard the name Ben Burtt, on the playground I heard from some kid about how the blaster fire was recorded by tapping a rock or hammer on a metal support cable. This piqued my curiosity as I tried every cable I could find, finally finding one that was so similar it was eerie. I remember it like it was yesterday, with a big grin on my face, and I have always kept my ears open for sounds like these.
Once in the industry, I typically learned directly from guys like Paul Lackey, Gene Semel & Robert Burns, and indirectly with other great film and game sound designers / editors out there that I admire like Ben Burtt, Randy Thom, David Farmer, Charles Maynes, Charles Deenen and Scott Gershin, to name a few.
DS: What inspires you creatively?
RG: Well, there’s always the joke – deadlines! But seriously, I get inspired easily and it happens when I hear something unusual and imagine that sound’s use outside of its intent or reason for existing. I am always imagining what else a sound can be used for, or as an element for, and that sometimes has limitless possibilities. Nowadays it comes from things like odd little squeaky stick-‘em letter set my daughter plays with in the bathtub, or somebody vacuuming the carpet upstairs creating a weird, flanging-type whine, or the sound of spoon inside the cylindrical metal tin of cat food. All of these things make me grab my D50 and record / perform them to get some unique new material that I didn’t have yesterday, and though I may never use for 2 years, I know I have it and someday it will have a unique use.
I don’t always have a firm idea in mind when designing a sound for something, which leads to a lot of discovery. During the process of spotting source sounds to Pro Tools, sometimes you’ll accidentally drop them over each and they’ll playback in a way you hadn’t anticipated, and you end up designing the whole thing around that “happy accident”.
DS: Why do you love most about working on video games?
RG: Marrying the sound to the game. That last step of creation when you finally attach the audio you’ve been painstakingly working on to the actual game itself is very satisfying. It is also the moment you find out whether your “genius” creation actually works as intended, or if it gets lost in the rest of the game’s soundscape, or repeats too often and becomes annoying.
Some of these things are game-specific and are issues not shared by films, and may require you alter the sounds themselves, mix them better, create more variants, etc.
But above all things, this is the best part – bringing the worlds and characters to life.
DS: Do you have an sopecific philosophy for your audio direction role?
RG: I definitely try to lead by example. I do not professionally respect anyone in a leadership position who does not have their chops down, so every day I work with the team as just another sound designer trying to make things awesome, in addition to the more-administrative duties I am now working with in my supervisory role.
I do not believe in designing “temp” audio for anything. Unless there is a special recording trip coming down the pike for certain sounds in a given project, creating temp audio for something could put you into the corner with what is considered “temp love” by your colleagues. What happens is they may come to really like your temporary assets, so when they are finally replaced, you may face some opposition.
Besides, most game dev cycles don’t leave time for you to re-create the “final” assets for much of the game’s sound, and you may find that you are wasting your precious mixing and polish time doing so at the tail end of a project.
I am also a firm believer of an old motto carried over from High Moon: “Results Onscreen”. It doesn’t matter how much you toil away on your local computer to craft the perfect sounds for a game. If they are not in-game and set up correctly, they may as well not exist. This sounds like a no-brainer, but there is no better way to iterate on how your ideas are working unless they are in the game. You will most-likely garner some feedback on your work from the team (usually if it isn’t working), which is important for growth as well.
DS: What would be the best advice you could give to any aspiring/professional sound designer?
RG: One thing I always keep in mind is where I came from. If a student is interested in shadowing us for the day or taking a tour to get an overview, I try to set that up to expose them to the game side of an audio career that they might not see much of in school. Informational interviews are big on my list for helping and educating others.
I remember how eye-opening it was for me to learn how sound functions within a three-dimensional game world, and aspiring sound designers today have never had it easier to learn the basics of these kinds of skills before they even set foot in a development studio. Jump into one or more of the existing third-party sound engines out there such as FMOD Designer or Wwise, or even the Unreal Editor itself. These tools typically have a sandbox game space where you can practice placing sounds in a 3D world, which is invaluable practice. You can download all of this software for free. It didn’t exist when I was trying to get into the industry, so take advantage of that.
Additional advice would be to get out there with some equipment and record! Learn Pro Tools well, as it is the standard. Experiment with plug-ins and automation. Learn all you can about sound design and practice, practice, practice. It’s an art form, and you won’t get any better unless you practice.
If you’re in some kind of audio production school, USE the studio – as often as you can. You won’t typically have access to that kind of facility when you’re out of school (not for free anyway).
Watch special features on sound from DVD & Blu-ray discs, or featurettes on the web / YouTube, or read about other sound designers in both the film and game worlds on websites such as Designing Sound. Read audio blogs from guys like Chuck Russom, Tim Prebble, Frank Bry and others, and listen to their raw recordings, and check out their custom sound libraries they have for sale. Just because you are a student or aren’t working professionally yet doesn’t mean you can’t easily purchase many of their well-crafted, custom sound libraries which are very inexpensive when you compare them to the pricier heavy hitters like Hollywood Edge or Sound Ideas, which are older, overused and lower-fidelity.
Use your own custom recordings in the construction of the audio track for some linear movie or game trailers. This is all excellent practice and you will be better every time you do it. Leave the music out.
Use resources like Gamasutra to help you find interships or junior level positions, but don’t rely on just one or two websites like this. Research the game development companies and publishers and check their individual job listings as well. Do your homework and you will most likely find something that fits, if given a little time, but be prepared to move from where you live unless you’re near the major areas.
In addition, when you’re ready, bother somebody like me with your demos! Look me up on LinkedIn or Facebook. I’d be happy to listen to them and give you feedback, or if you’re showing great promise, refer you around to places that may be hiring, if we’re not.
DS: What are your main tools in the studio and the field?
At work I use a Pro Tools | HD2 system on an 8-core Mac Pro with 5.1 Blue Sky monitoring. The Waves Diamond bundle is my main suite of plug-ins. At home, I use Nuendo 5 on PC with 5.1 KRK VII monitoring. There are a lot of great plug-ins that come with Nuendo, including a convolution reverb, that are nice. This home system also serves as my gaming and movie rig, which I love.
In the field I use my trusty old “frankenstein” 2-channel rig that I put together with a Rode NT4 stereo mic and a Sound Devices MixPre feeding a 1st-generation Microtrack. It’s getting long in the tooth, however, so I’ll eventually make the jump to a Sound Devices 7-series recorder one day.
DS: Is there a specific project that you’ve enjoyed the most?
Transformers: War For Cybertron was my favorite project I have worked on so far. Not being a huge Transformers fan in general (I was into Voltron back in the 80’s), that quickly disappeared when I started work on this game.
I had really wanted to work in the science fiction genre, and we got to pull out all of the stops when designing sounds for this game. We joked that we also got to dust off some of those Waves plug-ins we hadn’t typically used much before. I had a blast with organic / synthetic ambiences, creating futuristic vehicle audio based on real cars from today, as well as coming up with my own transformation sounds that paid homage to the classic one. It was absolute fun.
DS: What are your favorite games? Any specific that you like for its sound work?
I particularly enjoyed the latest Medal of Honor, specifically the single-player campaign. I felt that game possessed some of the best weapon & character sound design and dialog distance treatment I have ever heard.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2 has excellent sound design work as well, and is a much-less frantic multiplayer experience than what you’ll find in the Call of Duty / Modern Warfare series. The real-time obstruction / occlusion, along with the beautiful blend of variably-distanced weapon audio transitions are awesome and add a LOT of depth to the game.
Red Dead Redemption has a beautiful soundscape, with well-written dialog, and a cool interactive music system. This brings you into the world effortlessly and makes it feel just as big as it actually is.
Alan Wake ranks up there for me for it’s uniqueness in sound, gameplay and music. The game really feels like episodic miniseries and can be quite frightening. The sound of the searing strings as you use the flashlight on the Darkness in the game is awesome, as it blends in so perfectly with the horrific music that swells when you are about to be killed by apparitions. LOVE this game. It’s hard to play at night as it’s just too freaky.
Dead Space – my second all-time favorite game, ever. Never before have I experienced such a perfect blend of game and sound design, raising the hair on the back of your neck and delivering an awesome storytelling and horrifying gameplay experience. I have the sequel sitting on my desk now and cannot wait to jump in.
Half-Life 2 and its episodes rank as the number one game favorite for me, though, not particularly for the sound. The pacing of the story and characters involved have a special place in my heart and I cannot wait for a new chapter in this story. Genius.
DS: What’s next for you, Rodney? What are you currently working on?
Always! As I mentioned before, unlike the normal console game development studio, we always have multiple projects brewing at Sony Online. Be they expansions of existing products, weekly updates for some of the newer live games, or early pre-production and development for new titles, they definitely keep things interesting on a day-to-day basis here.
We are one of the very few departments in development here that are responsible for each product that goes live, so managing our time and resources are of the utmost importance to maintain a forward-moving workflow, while building solid relationships and maintaining good communication across all of the teams.
I am very excited about the work we will be doing over the next couple of years with the new games we’re working on, as some of them are new genres to me that I am looking forward to.
My continuing goal is to keep creating the best experience I can with my team, across all of our titles, while improving our technology to extend our capability even further!