Interview with Leonard J. Paul, of the School of Video Game Audio
With the rise in popularity of sound design, and game audio as a career choice among audio engineers, there is a growing call for formal training and education courses that will prepare prospective professionals accordingly. Last week, I posted this open call for students to enrol in the School of Video Game Audio. The co-founder of the School, Leonard J. Paul, has been kind enough to take some time and answer some questions on the school, and its content and goals.
Can you give us a little background about yourself, and the school?
I’ve been involved in video games off and on since 1994. I originally started out in programming but these days I work on composition, sound design and implementation for video games. I work a bit in film as well and was the composer the “The Corporation” which is the highest-grossing Canadian documentary film in history. For the past ten years I’ve been working on video game audio education while continuing to work in games. For the last few years I’m concentrated on working with indie titles such as Retro City Rampage and Vessel by Strange Loop Games.
The idea of the school has been around for a while from conversations Gordon and I were having a few years back. It seemed that there was a service missing for people that wanted some guidance on learning game audio but didn’t have the time to attend a school or didn’t have any schools available nearby. I enjoy giving lectures internationally and have repeatedly found that there is an amazing growth of the gaming industry around the world but it is often difficult for people to learn from veterans in the field. By making the school online and by trying to keep the costs reasonable it helps make our knowledge available to a large range of students that wouldn’t necessarily have the opportunity otherwise.
What were the main drivers behind the venture?
I hope that our school will raise the level of game audio knowledge internationally and help people make their own games that incorporate their own unique cultures. Similar to other forms of art, I believe that there is a large amount of people worldwide that are interested in playing games that talk specifically to their own cultural background. I hope that the art and culture of gaming will continue to mature and produce games that stand the test of time as cultural artifacts instead of just pieces of nostalgia.
Does the course require a certain level of audio engineering knowledge/experience to gain the most from the syllabus?
Yes, the students that will be most successful in game audio will need to have a firm grasp on digital audio theory and practice. There’s a lot of great places and programmes to learn digital audio from already so we’re focusing on game audio specific material. In
general, we assume that applicants have a strong background in audio before applying to our classes.
What kind of principles will students cover during the course?
With the first course in Audiokinetic’s Wwise, students will learn how to use Wwise enough to create a professional demo reel. I believe that it is important for anyone involved in game audio to not be afraid of understanding code and implementation so students will have an opportunity to compile the code for the project. Implementation is similar to learning another language which helps you describe how you want the system to play the audio.
How many hours of lectures will the students receive?
The estimated minimum number of hours for the course is ten hours per week. The idea is that professionals can take the course while being employed. For students just getting started in game audio, they will likely need to spend much more time exploring the concepts as they are introduced so it is advantageous for them to have extra time to complete the material. Basically the course is entirely self-driven so students can ask questions in all facets of game audio as they relate to the project. If a student has a difficulty completing the course within the two months then they can simply pay by the month and work at their own rate.
Does the school offer any of kind of qualification and/or certificate of completion of the course?
We are not offering any forms of qualification at this time or any time in the foreseeable future. The main reason why we don’t offer any qualifications at the school is that any time that I’ve been involved in the hiring process for entry level game audio roles at companies, such as Electronic Arts, the focus has typically been on applicants who have completed projects that are directly related to the role that we were hiring for. All of our classes will have a project-based focus so that you can demonstrate the quality of your work in a particular area to an employer with a direct example. Our core goal is to help you refine your process and make your work speak for itself. We’d be more than happy to validate your involvement with the school if an employer wanted to know any details. We hope that the school will earn the respect of employers in the future but this reputation takes time and hard work on our part to earn. Our goal with the School of Video Game Audio is to focus on quality and to raise the level of the art of video game audio on an international level.
Game audio is a very in-depth subject – How did you break down the subject into the content you are teaching your
I’ve taught game audio off and since nearly ten years ago which includes a five year period at the Vancouver Film School teaching game audio exclusively. I basically build from the basics of triggering a sound using events and allow for a lot of exploration with help when it is requested. I believe it’s important for students to take the time to make the sounds in the game happen on their own to really understand how things are working.
Was it difficult to distil that information into a teaching plan?
After several years of refining game audio courses I’ve gotten used to structuring lessons to balance a teaching plan with enough information to maintain interest and not too much information to cause too much confusion. When people are learning, they should be given the chance to fail and I do my best to make sure that people feel safe taking risks while learning. I find that if students are given room to experiment and take risks then I typically end up learning a lot from them as well and improving my own skills in game audio.
What software do you work with, and why those particular tools?
For game audio I typically work with FL Studio for music and Wavelab for sound editing. I use FL Studio as I find I work the fastest in it and I rarely do any orchestration, in which case I would likely use Nuendo. Within FL Studio, I often use Reaktor and Kontakt for synthesized sounds, effects and sample playback. I also use a large amount of free VST plugins as well. For a more electroacoustic approach to sound processing, I will use AudioMulch and find the metasurface to be a great way to create dynamic landscapes of sounds. I enjoy using Wavelab for editing sounds as I work quickly with it and find the batch functions are often invaluable. For Retro City Rampage I used OpenMPT to produce the music and had a lot of fun learning how to make tracker music. Overall, I would recommend trying out various software and finding out which one suits your pattern of thought and working style the best and stick with that one.
How regularly do you recruit new students? Are there any chances for people to get involved if they have just missed an intake?
We currently take students in every two months for classes. If a particular class isn’t full and a person that missed an intake is fine with starting late, then they can take the class and catch up on the material, but if the class is full then they’ll need to wait until the class starts. We’ll also be starting a second tier of participants that pay a monthly fee to access a subset of the material but will not have their work evaluated. Another option we’re working on for the future is to have master classes that are designed in conjunction with leaders in the field where their work in the class is evaluated by us. This would allow industry leaders to spread their knowledge to a large range of students while still working in the field.
Do you have any input from game developers (audio department or otherwise) on what they are looking for on people’s portfolios?
We have worked at game companies and taught for a while so we have a good idea of what companies are looking for in general. Most of the time studios are looking for someone that they can simply put into the seat and have them do the job with very little training. We’re doing our best to make things easier for companies and help students find employment. Our students from our previous work in game audio have been quite successful and gone on to leading roles in game companies, so we’ll do our best to continue this trend with our current students.
What are your ideas for developing the courses further? Are there any tools or techniques that the course doesn’t currently cover that you would like to?
There’s a lot to learn in game audio so hopefully our number of courses will continue to grow. One of the difficulties of game audio is that the tools change quite quickly so our goal is to keep the classes in line with the current technology. I hope that in the near future that we will have classes to cover Wwise, FMOD, Unity, Unreal and Pure Data.
Do you have a message for any prospective students reading this article?
In the end, I believe that process is more important than goals. There’s only so much time that we have on the planet and I believe that having an inspiring time with those we interact with is one of the more important things in life. I’m hoping to make the process of learning helpful skills in game audio an enjoyable one.
Thank you for your time, Leonard