Rodney Gates Special: Getting the Gig – A Guide to Becoming a Video Game Sound Designer
[Written by Rodney Gates for Designing Sound]
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.
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.
Sound Effects Libraries
AVID Pro Tools