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Posted by on Apr 12, 2011 | 22 comments

Rodney Gates Special: Getting the Gig – A Guide to Becoming a Video Game Sound Designer

[Written by Rodney Gates for Designing Sound]

Rodney Gates, Mike Niederquell, Ian Mika – Civil War re-enactment trip in Vista, CA

Everyone has a story on how they started working in games, and they can be as varied as the day is long. Many start in Quality Assurance positions (game testing), or Customer Service (in the case of Sony Online). Some get internships, and some get hired on as a junior sound designer attached to a team right away.

What I’d like to focus on is what you can do to set yourself apart and impress Audio Directors and Leads out there to get that first gig.

So, is it all luck and the state of the economy that determine your fate? Not necessarily. There is a lot you can do to prepare yourself to gain recognition in a stack of demos and resume submissions.

Tip 1 – Don’t Be Lazy

This is by far the most important tip I can give you. If you’re like me at all, then you will feel and demonstrate passion about this kind of work.

Even before I worked in games, I had a portable laptop-based recording rig with a good mic and windscreen, as well as mic pre, compressor and Event LAYLA audio interface for my desktop PC, with Alesis Monitor One speakers. I was serious about breaking in, so I had put together this small studio setup to do so.

If you truly want to get into this field and succeed, you cannot do so passively. The pool of game audio personnel in this industry is actually quite small, and opportunities aren’t nearly as profuse as they are for game & level designers, artists, animators, programmers and even production roles. Audio positions are much harder to come by, even worse with a poor economy, and many are filled via word-of-mouth recommendation from ‘Someone A’ who knows ‘Someone B’ to be an excellent, talented person who’s great to work with.

Also, Audio teams are usually one of the smallest departments in a studio, yet are responsible for much more than many of the other individual disciplines within a game team; an entire half of the game experience.

You will need to be motivated to prepare yourself and pursue a job in this field, and keep it up once you’re in.

Tip 2 – Go To School

There are many audio production schools out there, and many have game audio as part of their curriculum. Some even have sound design courses to get you started, which are even better. Learn all that you can while you are there, and pay attention to courses that may not fall in line with what you think is important to know.

You may feel a class like Live Sound may not teach you things that you may use, but you’d be wrong. There’s a lot of problem solving tricks to be learned in a course like this, and you will gain a better understanding of how sound will function in space other than a nicely-designed studio environment, which will translate to things like large presentations you may one day make, company-wide reviews of your game, or even field recording weapons out in the desert.

What about a Music Business class? Believe me, I wish I’d paid more attention. One day you’ll be dealing with copyrights, contracts and legal issues when it comes to licensing music or hiring composers, voice directors and even other sound designers / field recordists outside of the company. These are important things to learn as they will come up sooner than you think.

An electronics class will definitely help you. You don’t need to be an expert, but knowing how to create and repair cables makes you a valuable asset, and learning how to troubleshoot problems as they arise in complex audio systems.

If the school has a recording facility that you can have access to after hours, then get in there and use it as much as possible. You will only solidify your knowledge, familiarity and confidence by doing the work.

Tip 3 – Learn Pro Tools

Pro Tools is the industry standard in music and post production, and has a large hold on game audio as well. It is far more important to learn this than becoming a whiz on an SSL console, as you will most likely never use one of those in your game career. At best you’ll start off on a simple stereo system and eventually graduate to a 5.1 rig, almost always in a small-ish office without a console.

Some studios may use Nuendo or other comparable DAWs, but if you make it a point to learn Pro Tools well, you can easily translate this knowledge to other systems.

Can you get into game audio without school? Sure – but you’d better be one talented person who’s been motivated to learn many of these things on your own. Also, keep in mind that without having some audio-centric schooling on your resume means that you could run the risk of ending up at the bottom of the heap.

Tip 4 – Research the Craft

From behind-the-scenes special features, podcasts, magazines, books, blogs, and websites such as this one, there have never been more opportunities to learn about Sound Design in games and film. Spend the time to do some research – there’s a heck of a lot more to it than editing 30-year old library sounds and dropping them into a game or video. If you’re like me, you’ve already been doing this for a while. I still do this almost every day. It’s an art form, and you will learn something new all the time throughout your career.

Tip 5 – Create a Killer Demo

This is very important, especially when you’re starting out. If you’re in a school and have access to their studio, then you should be planning this from day one. Don’t rely on the school projects to provide exactly what you think you will need for a game audio job submission – you should also plan to work on one of these kinds of submissions as well:

Download some cool QuickTime game or movie trailers that you will remove the existing audio track from and design a new one from scratch. This is a lot of work, but you can claim 100% creative ownership of its soundscape, and it will showcase your skills in linear storytelling as well as Sound Design. Leave the music out.

If you are low on sound effects library material to pull from, you should simply record things yourself that you can use. Also, research some free-to-use website collections such as Freesound.org and others.

It doesn’t hurt to spend a little money to buy what you need for sounds either, even before you break in. SoundDogs.com is one of the oldest pay sites that has helped out many a sound designer in a pinch. There are even better custom libraries available from professional sound designers like Chuck Russom, Frank Bry, Tim Prebble, Michael Raphael, and others that are extremely high-quality recording collections at affordable prices. These guys know exactly what professionals need and use on a daily basis and have painstakingly recorded them, as opposed to the larger, older sound library companies out there like Sound Ideas or Hollywood Edge that come from more of a film background (nobody needs car bys in stereo in games, typically).

Video games usually exist in a three-dimensional world. Learning one or more of the middleware audio engines the industry uses such as FMOD Designer or Wwise will begin to teach you the basic principles of how sound works in a 3D environment. Other important tools out there are the Unity game engine, and even Epic’s UDK (Unreal Editor) is available. Many studios use UDK for their titles. Good for you to learn.

You can download most if not all of these programs for free to experiment with, and they usually have a sandbox type game “level” where you can apply your newly-created sounds to the environment. This knowledge will definitely set you above the usual submissions and will demonstrate that you know a little about audio in a game world context – adding to your value. When I started, I had no idea how sound worked in games – I quickly learned, of course, but had there been avenues to explore like this back then, I would have jumped on it.

As a recap, my advice would be to put together a couple of cool linear QuickTime trailers with your soundtrack, demonstrate knowledge of audio integration into a 3D game space with one or more of the audio / game engines listed above (video and sound capture of these is fine), and even include a handful of some cool, custom designed sounds that are uniquely yours – things you are proud of.

Add to that a clean, professional resume and cover letter, and you should be set. Then get it off in the mail or up on the web.

Tip 6 – Networking

Even if you’re not in the industry, there’s nothing stopping you from connecting with industry professionals on sites such as LinkedIn. As your schooling and demo are getting near completion, it can’t hurt to reach out, while keeping an eye on the job boards.

Be courteous. Positions aren’t abundant, especially in poor economic conditions, so hounding someone that doesn’t have a spot available or doesn’t foresee one in the near future won’t make you any friends.

When I became Audio Director, I didn’t expect to be besieged by so many students, peers and (especially) composers, but I welcomed it

Naturally, the experienced composers out there have mastered this networking craft. They understand that someone in my position has the ability to hire them for a game project, yet are very respectful and drop in from time to time when things are quiet. This serves to keep them fresh in my mind and when a new project becomes available, I revisit the roster of folks who I think would be a good fit.

You can use these similar tactics as well.

Tip 7 – Jump on Internships or Junior-level Positions

“I’m going to become a game tester and once the audio department learns about my schooling or skills, they’ll want to hire me, right?”

Wrong. The audio department doesn’t know about you and may never learn about you even if you’re in the same building, working in QA. It’s not because they’re being rude; they simply are busy and focused on their work. Remember that they’re one of the smallest teams in the studio, and simply have a lot to do.

One of the guys I work with today was in QA took the initiative, reaching out through IT to find out what software and hardware we used. He ended up writing a ton of audio-centric bugs that gained attention and when the time came to bring someone onto the team, even in an audio-specific QA role, we did. This eventually led to him getting hired on as a junior-level sound designer.

“Is there a more straightforward path?”

Yes. My advice would be to aim for audio internships and junior-level positions as they become available. This will ensure you land specifically in the department you are seeking to work in, and will be doing audio-related work right away.

Most internships are paid (though not well), but if you consider them a stepping stone and can swing it financially, then they are worth it for the experience alone.

Don’t rely on sites like Gamasutra for job listings, either. Research the game development studios in a region and focus your efforts on their websites’ job boards instead – a lot of information doesn’t get to Gamasutra since it costs the studios money. They can easily post listings on their own sites for free.

Tip 8 – Don’t Be a Jerk

Nothing will kill a team’s desire to work with you more than this. You can have the most golden ears and talent in the world, but acting like a heel will get you nowhere.

Do yourself a favor and just be calm and cool, get your work done on time, and do it to the best of your ability. If you accept constructive criticism from your peers and superiors and learn from your mistakes, you will find that you will quickly and easily grow into a talented individual that people want to work with.

This can take you much further once you’re in the industry than revamping an old demo; in many cases, a demo may not even be needed if the reputation you’ve built is excellent.

Even though all of this sounds like a no-brainer, and even if you are an amazingly super-talented force to be reckoned with, there’s no reason to flaunt it or belittle others with arrogant behavior. This will only serve to dwindle the future opportunities in your career as word gets around.

Conclusion

These guidelines above should help get you on the path for an exciting game audio career. I have provided some links below to some of the resources mentioned above – so do your research.

FMOD Designer

http://www.fmod.org/index.php/products/designer

Wwise

http://www.audiokinetic.com/

Unity

http://unity3d.com/

UDK

http://www.udk.com/

Sound Effects Libraries

http://www.sound-ideas.com/

http://www.hollywoodedge.com/

http://www.sounddogs.com/

http://www.soundstorm.com/

http://www.freesound.org/

http://www.chuckrussomfx.com/

http://www.therecordist.com/

http://www.hissandaroar.com/

http://www.rabbitearsaudio.com/

http://www.blastwavefx.com/

AVID Pro Tools

http://www.avid.com/US/products/family/Pro-Tools

22 Comments

  1. Hi Rodney!

    Great article. I was wondering to what extent you think someone’s knowledge of an audio implementation package such as FMOD, Wwise etc needs to be while applying for junior roles?

    I’ve had a couple of interviews for in-house sound designer roles in the UK but been let down by the lack of experience in implementation. Its hard to get that experience without working on a game to begin with though! lol The old catch 22 ;) 

    Are there good sites/forums/groups that are worth looking at to gain experience in implementation using the tools you mentioned? For example game Mods? Would be great to find a tutor or mentor of sorts to help out with any issues along the way!
    If you decide to do any webinars etc in implementation let me know! ;)

    Andy

    • Hey man, I was wondering if you could share your experience with those interviews you had in the UK? It would be very helpful for those who are preparing for interviews too :)

      Cheers

  2. Hey Andy,

    Try downloading Epic’s free Unreal Development Kit. Making a video showcasing how your work is implemented could help.

  3. Great article, Andy!
    Some of the tips seem like no-brainers, but it’s always good to recap and recitate what one think may be natural, because sometimes it’s easy to forget even the most elemental things…!

    As an aspiring, almost graduated audio-engineer, I’m gonna read and re-read this article! Cheers! :)

  4. I meant “Rodney”, not Andy. lol, bedtime for me tired brain yesh…

  5. Great article and great tips about breaking into the industry. Thanks! :)

  6. Brilliant article… Thanks, Rodney. Got some really valuable tips. For the past few months, always had a feeling that am half way there but after reading this article am feeling pumped up to shape up the path and get some gigs. Cheers!

  7. Rodney, thank you so much for your time in writing that up! I do have a question for you, though. If I am interested in working a particular genre of games, say for example racing games, would it be a worthwhile to tailor a demo toward that genre, or is keeping a more broad range beneficial?

  8. Thanks for the great article Rodney! Really helps me get a direction on where to go!

    I have one concern though. You say that without some form of “audio-centric schooling” appearing on my resume, then I’d probably be put at the bottom of the application pile.

    If I’m already a 2nd year in a “Computer Game Science” major (UC Irvine), does this put me at a disadvantage right off the bat? I intend on doing all the sound design for my projects in the major, and I’m teaching myself UDK, Wwise, and FMOD, but I just find it surprising that you say not having an audio degree is potentially an instant bottom-of-pile!

  9. Great article!

    Rodney certainly knows what he’s talking about. Those links at the bottom are the essence for anyone in video game audio.

  10. Great article Rodney! I teach a Game Audio course and try to emphasize all the points you mentioned and elaborated on so well. I am going to have my students do a paper on your article, in the hopes that it will become ingrained in the heads! 

  11. Fantastic article and something every aspiring sound designer should follow. I was nodding my head the whole time, agreeing with many things you pointed out and just remembering back to when I started 7 years ago, fresh out of CRAS. Well done.

  12. Wow, thank you all for your overwhelming support! I am humbled and honored by your comments. I remember it like it was yesterday when I was trying to break in and I always, ALWAYS want to give back. This can be an exciting career, though sometimes fraught with peril with things like layoffs or studio closures, etc., but overall – would I rather be working in insurance? Absolutely not. You can have a solid career if you apply yourself and do great work while being an even-better colleague. We’re all in this together to make the best games we can. :-)

  13. Andy – Mike’s right. Using UDK, you can really get a taste for how game audio functions and by integrating your sounds and adjusting their parameters such as volume, pitch, radius, etc., this will put you in the mindset of how we work every day.

  14. David, a broad range is good, but if you ow you specifically wish to pursue working on a racing titles, then definitely add that to the list. Speaking of racing, have you listened to Charles Deenen & crew’s work on the latest Need For Speed: Shift games? Really good work there. Also, keep you eyes open for things like the Waves Sound Design Competition DS.org mentioned in February. These kinds of things can get you noticed and are great practice.

  15. Bryan – not necessarily at all. I stressed the importance of school so that you would have a great understanding of the science of sound and signal flow from a fundamental level, with hopefully some sound design and / or game audio classes thrown in. The work you would be doing from a game design perspective plays another important strength I mentioned – game audio integration experience. It’s not necessarily a “trash bin” scenario at all; it’s just that a lot of Audio Directors out there come from this camp and might like to see some kind of traditional audio training. For me it’s the quality of the demos, and perception of their grasp of the way things work. The rest can be taught / learned by them over time once they’re in.

  16. Great article Rodney! I am going to be graduating in a month with a BA in Sound Design for Games, and I have heard many of these tips but I like how you made things much more literal. I have actually done everything on the list yet I am still having difficulties finding an entry level sound position. I have spent a large amount of time on gamedevmap.org searching for entry level sound design positions yet I have only found a handful in existence. I am getting the feeling that networking plays a bigger role when it comes to breaking in then suggested in your article.

  17. For those of you looking to deal with the catch-22 of needing development experience to get into the game industry, I always tell people to go work on mods. There are tons out there and plenty of work is available. There’s no pay of course but the implementation experience you gain will help separate your resume from other entry-level applicants. The initiative of going out and doing things on your own is also a plus and shows that you’re serious.

  18. Rodney, thanks much for the advice again. I haven’t picked up Shift II (the first Shift’s gameplay was kind of… yeah) but after entering that waves competition I’ve been looking to try Shift II out.

  19. Make sure your Recording / Sound Design and implementation skills are being developed by taking on projects. You can take one of the well made demo maps in the UDK and complete a solid level on your own. Most importantly, complete your projects! There is a lot to be learned on perseverance and finishing what you start.

  20. Really helpfull insight here man thanks.

  21. This article is fantastic! Thanks for the advice :) I’m currently practising sound design outside my daily QA Tester work. Putting in at least 12 hours of practise/working on projects per week. It demands hard work, and barriers come in the way, but I will not let it stop me from getting better each time :D

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