Article by Jeff Seamster
Those of us working in the field of audio production are accustomed to either a lengthy haul of design and content creation starting in pre-production or a series of intense sprints from one project’s post-production to another. Whichever camp you might fall into, the time and focus required by our craft make it easy to fall behind the latest developments in our field and fall out of touch with our network of peers. There are steps that both aspiring and seasoned audio professionals can take to stay current and stay connected.
To Get Ahead, Start By Looking Back
If you’re like me, you find it sometimes painful to look back at your previous work. There’s always something you’d have done differently knowing what you do now. But looking to your past is a useful exercise in refining your sonic identity while isolating techniques and aesthetic choices upon which you may be relying too heavily. Once you’ve put your ideas out into the wild, they instantly begin to decay and you need somewhere else to turn while you wait for everything old to become new again. Keeping your sound fresh and growing as an artist requires breaking out of your comfort zone, sometimes forcibly. But where to begin?
Experiment and Deconstruct
When you’re doing project-based work all the time, it’s not hard to forget the importance of raw experimentation and exercises in deconstruction. You wouldn’t be hearing “the new sound” in current media without that sort of experimentation and there’s no reason you can’t be leading the charge or at least staying in stride. Try some new mic techniques, some non-literal/nontraditional designs, or some new plug-ins to evolve your sound and sharpen your skills. Speaking of plug-ins, take advantage of the many affordable (and even free) plug-ins and sound manipulation programs available on the web. If you need a couple to get you started, check out Paul’s Extreme Stretch and the SIR2 convolution reverb. You can lose yourself for hours using either one.
Deconstruction is an equally important skill that can be difficult at first, but it gets easier the more you do it. Try to recreate unique sounds that you’ve heard in a recent movie or game and try to understand why certain sound design choices and techniques are successful. Can you replicate the sound of a Recognizer from Tron Legacy? Can you explain why the dynamic dialogue system in Bastion succeeded where similar systems that came before failed? Neither of those examples has a simple solution and your conclusions might be different from those of another sound designer. I raise the point because you can bet that at some point in your career, you’ll be asked to replicate an audio experience or specific sound from another production. Regular practice in deconstruction will help you do deliver on such requests quickly. Now where can you go for reference material?
Dig Into Some Indie
Naturally we need to keep tabs on what’s happening in the worlds of big budget film and triple-A game development. But sound designers for independent film and games are also constantly pushing the limits of their media. Sometimes they’re going for a nontraditional sound to meet a new visual style or, in the case of games, a new game mechanic or play style. Other times they’re innovating out of necessity since they’ve been asked to do more with less. Someday you may be asked to do the same. In any case, there are lessons to be learned from the indie scene so try to keep at least one finger on its pulse. For games, you can easily find new releases around the web on sites like IndieGames.com. If you’re not close to a theater that screens independent films, services like Netflix and the iTunes store are starting to carry a fairly deep catalog of independent feature-length movies and short films.
Take a Trip
There can be vast differences in audio aesthetic from one region to the next, with some of the most drastic differences found in comparing films and games from Asia to those of the West. The aesthetic of one region can give surprising and compelling results when integrated into the traditional aesthetic of another. Try to find places where the aesthetics of two or more regions can work together even if you’re leveraging their points of contrast. Those of us interested in freelance sound design should be well versed in regional aesthetic to meet the needs and expectations of our international clientele. Game releases are hit or miss when it comes to availability outside their country of origin, but the biggest hits are typically available around the globe. Foreign movies, on the other hand, are readily available and online movie outlets are again proving an excellent source for your research.
A modern sound designer should feel comfortable bringing musical character to his or her work. We’re hearing less wall-to-wall music in film, games, and television lately. This creates new opportunities for a sound designer to support narrative and drive mood in places where underscore would have traditionally been used. A sound designer should also be familiar with the trends and styles in modern music. Placement of source music will often fall into a sound designer’s responsibilities and familiarity with the latest developments in the music scene will allow for informed choices in that placement. Electronic music tends to lead the charge with novel technique in DSP and production. If you want to hear where DSP is headed next, look to the likes of BT, Richard Devine and Amon Tobin. As for keeping tabs on the rest of the music scene, tap into outlets like Spotify and Pitchfork to find out what’s trending in music.
It can be difficult to keep all this information in your head, so get into the habit of keeping notes about your work and the work of those around you. When I find a game or movie with particularly interesting sound design, I keep a notebook handy to jot down timings for points of interest. This is especially useful when working on a team where there’s a lot of reference material being passed around. Note taking is also important during your exercises in experimentation and deconstruction. Knowing how to get back to your best results is just as important as the experimentation itself.
Build Your Network
One of the best resources for any creative professional is a strong network of similarly focused individuals. For the sound designer, this network would naturally include other sound designers and audio professionals. It should also include professionals from a variety of complementary disciplines such as studio engineering, field recording and film-making. This network will serve as additional pairs of ears in your hunt for new and interesting sound design.
One of the most useful developments in the past few years is the level of access we have to each other via Twitter. Professionals who were otherwise unconnected or unreachable five years ago are now a tweet away from your questions and communiques. When limited to 140 characters, a lot of people are willing to (briefly) open up about the work they’re doing. If you’ve got a question for a sound designer, filmmaker or editor whose work intrigues you, send them a tweet and many times you’ll get an answer the same day. That tweet could lead to a more involved collaboration in the future.
Make The Time, But Know Your Limits
One of the most important things to remember in your efforts to stay current is that your time and your capacity for information are limited. The topics I’ve mentioned require effort on your part and trying to do it all at once will only burn you out. Prioritize the material most relevant to your industry and choose your battles when consuming media.
I’m focused on game development, so the majority of my time is spent checking out the latest developments in game audio and the gaming community. Every week I play several new game demos and retail releases realizing of course that I can’t finish every game I get my hands on. My Netflix instant movie queue is always growing with recommendations from colleagues and friends so I try to knock out a couple of movies each week as well. One of the greatest sacrifices we make as sound designers is that, for the most part, we can’t listen to music while we work. Most of my music intake happens during implementation work, my commute, and while reading the news. On that front, there are a handful of audio and gaming news sites I check in with daily, a job made much easier with Google Reader and RSS feeds. Where in all this do I find time for the experimentation and deconstruction that I value so highly? Wherever I can. And this brings up an important point: Experimentation and deconstruction are often spontaneous acts that happen when inspiration strikes. Keep your audio workstation and gear ready to go at a moment’s notice.
These practices work well for me, but everyone has different needs. Consult your professional and personal networks to inform your workflow decisions and to keep you posted on new media, new techniques, new websites, etc. Above all, remember that this isn’t an extracurricular pursuit; this is part of the job. Find the time to do it, proceed wisely and stay at the front of the pack.