Eduardo Ortiz Frau is a freelance game audio designer based in Austin, TX. He has worked in audio and music production for over ten years and has been working in sound design for games since 2011. He’s worked on titles like The Stanley Parable, Apotheon, and Neverending Nightmares. Eduardo Oritz Frau was kind enough to answer some of our questions about his work including his experiment in representing himself as a company as opposed to an individual sound artist.
Designing Sound: How did you get into sound?
Eduardo Ortiz Frau: Like many other sound designers, I came into this profession because of my love for music. Music was all I used to think about when I was younger. I was in bands, I studied audio engineering and classical composition, worked in recording studios, etc. Eventually, I got burned out on the music industry. I wasn’t feeling inspired by it anymore and I was also struggling to make a living within it. So I ditched it, moved to Austin, TX and started exploring other ways I could employ my audio skills. That led me to discover the video game industry and, specifically, the world of indie games. I had no idea what was going on with indie games before this time, but needless to say, I was completely enthralled by what seemed to me like THE up and coming medium to work with. So I focused all my energy and resources into breaking into the industry.
Once I actually started working in games I realized that I loved everything about it. I loved thinking about audio aesthetics, designing systems of implementation, using sound to help convey information about game mechanics or narrative elements, etc. It also helped that I seemed to be a much better sound designer than I ever was a composer, so it was definitely the right choice for me.
DS: What are you currently working on and which aspects are you responsible for?
EOF: I’m working on a few different projects right now. Everything, Miegakure, Gorogoa, and P.A.M.E.L.A. are the main ones. For the first three games I’m responsible for everything involving the audio (except music composition and music systems). I design the audio systems that are going to be in-game and talk to the programmers about how to best implement them. I make the sound assets and implement them using the tools available to me. If I need custom tools for implementing audio then I talk to the programmers about those as well. I’m also the person mixing the game at the end. For P.A.M.E.L.A., I’m working with The Other World Agency (a game audio agency based in Melbourne, Australia) to provide the audio. Right now I’m taking care of asset creation for the game, and after I clear my schedule a bit in the next couple months I will take the role of lead sound designer and also do of all the audio implementation/mixing. This is the first time I’ve worked with a bigger audio company on a project, and so far I like. I still enjoy a lot of creative freedom without having to deal with any of the administrative or managerial responsibilities involved with a larger scale project like this one.
When it comes to music, I try to have an ongoing conversation with the composer(s) about how music and sound should interact throughout the game. But I also try not to interfere too much with their own process and just focus on making assets/systems that compliment/play well with the music and its own systems.
DS: What do you enjoy most about your work?
EOF: I love telling stories through my work. I love that I can add my own point of view to the game narrative through the way that world sounds. There’s so much information I can tell the player about a place, a character, an object, a game mechanic, an action, through the way it sounds. And a lot of it I get to make up! I mean, I will almost always be drawing inspiration from the concepts and ideas already involved in the game. But I also get to draw from my own experiences and insert my own perspective on what I think that world is about, and that can super fun. I’m also big on mood. My favorite games are ones that are good at conveying and putting me in some sort of deep mood. I also get to help do that through sound. I get to influence how the player is gonna feel about any given aspect of the game, through the way it sounds. Do I want the player to feel powerful? Do I want him/her to feel scared? Or maybe lonely? All these moods can be expressed through sound, and I love that. I love the idea of being able to put the player in a specific emotional space. That’s what drew me to music in the first place, and I’m happy that I can still do that through sound design.
DS: What do you think has been key to your success?
EOF: I have definitely been very lucky to meet the right people right from the beginning of my sound design career. That being said, I was always willing to put myself where I knew I could end up with these opportunities. I got involved within the games community here in Austin, and spent the little money I had to go to GDC and other game development conferences. As a freelancer, a large part of my business is networking and getting to know other developers. So going to these conferences early on was invaluable for my career.
I also work, A LOT. Since the beginning of my career I’ve always tried to overdeliver, and I think this pays off down the line, especially when you’re getting started and are trying to get noticed. Even if I was receiving little money or no money at all for a job, I always did my best. And a lot of times that meant taking more time than anticipated/budgeted to complete a project, without expecting to get paid for it. I understand some professionals may see this as a bad thing, but the truth is that I took that extra time to satisfy MY OWN standards of what sound should be, not the client’s. The clients weren’t demanding the extra work, I was. Sometimes that meant pushing the client to work extra hard for the audio, like coding extra systems and tools for me.
This is definitely not a cheap profession to break into (at least from a freelancer’s perspective). Between buying equipment, software, libraries, and going to conferences, the cost of breaking in can be pretty high. But investing in good equipment, software, and SFX libraries really helped improve the quality of my work, and people noticed that. It also gave me the confidence to believe that I was prepared to take on the jobs at hand. I was definitely not making a lot of money when I first started (even when I was putting in long hours of work). My way around the whole money issue was getting a credit card that had 0% interest (as long as purchases were paid within 18 months) and using it for business expenses. I couldn’t afford to pay for all those things upfront but I could afford low monthly payments. I’m not saying anyone needs to go out and do this, but I’m saying there’s options for those interested in this profession and don’t have much capital to begin with.
DS: Our monthly theme recently was ‘Inspirations and Distractions’, so what inspires you?
EOF: Working with people I admire inspires me, and the people I tend to admire most in this industry are the composers (since there’s still a part of me that wishes I was one!). I am currently working with two composers I truly admire; Austin Wintory and Rich Vreeland (Disasterpeace). Sharing a sonic spectrum with them is truly exciting and an honor. My admiration doesn’t extend only to composers, of course. Working with an artist like David O’Reilly (Everything) is also a great honor, and definitely puts a lot of pressure on me to push myself and the quality of my work. Also the games themselves are a big inspiration. I mean, Marc ten Bosch (Miegakure) is making a game (and created an engine) that deals with four spatial dimensions. He’s writing mathematical sentences that create a virtual world with four dimensions, that shit blows my mind! And Gorogoa, made by the one-man-super-team Jason Roberts (code, art, design). That game is extremely beautiful, both in art and design. I fell in love with it the moment I saw it, definitely feel extremely lucky to be a part of it.
DS: What Distracts you?
EOF: Right now? Board games! Having been working on games for the last four years, I have come to really appreciate game systems and mechanics. I’ve been interested in creating my own games for a long time and have dabbled with game making in Unity in the past. But lately I’ve been feeling like, after a long day of working in front of a computer, the last thing I want to do when not working on video games is create/play more video games. I’ve been craving a break from technology and computer screens. So I recently discovered board games as a hobby, and have been obsessed with creating my own ever since. Board games provide that needed break from technology, but still allows me to create game mechanics and systems in an environment that’s purely physical. This is so refreshing! I do a lot of research, have weekly game nights with friends, and spend a lot of free time thinking about my own game mechanics.
I’ve also been enjoying board game design because it’s a break from thinking in terms of aesthetics or artistic sensibilities, and instead allows me to focus purely on systems design. I do get to design audio systems in video games, but that doesn’t usually tend to be the bulk of the work. I spend the most time designing the sounds themselves, thinking about aesthetics, feelings, moods, etc. When designing board games I can give the artsy side of my brain a rest and focus on the logical side. It’s still a super creative process so, I’ve been welcoming that distraction more and more lately.
DS: What spurred your desire to transition from an individual freelancer to a formal company?
EOF: For a long time (pretty much ever since I started) I’ve been questioning the idea of how to do business; as an individual or as a company? There are benefits to both structures and there will always be clients who prefer hiring one structure over the other. So, what should I choose? Since I was just starting out and didn’t have an overflow of work (also all the developers I knew were indie) I decided to do work as an individual, but the idea of someday creating a company never left the the back my mind.
As time passed I continued to meet more and more developers through conferences and events. As a result, work started pouring in, and it got to the point where it was just more work than I could handle on my own. Most of the games that were coming to me were very interesting in one way or another, so I definitely didn’t want to say no to them. It just seemed like the right time to start doing business as a company. If I had a company that meant I wouldn’t have to pass on these projects. I could employ other sound designers to do work under the company and oversee their work. So I decided to go ahead and give it a try. I accepted the extra work and hired some people to help me out with it. Things got interesting to say the least.
DS: What practical steps did you make during that transition?
EOF: I never got to the point of registering a new LLC. I thought I would give the whole idea of hiring people and taking bigger workloads a try first, before committing to any major structural changes. If it all went well, then I would go ahead and make the structure change, if it didn’t, then I would keep doing business as an individual.
So I put the word out that I was looking to hire some sound designers here in Austin, and soon enough I got people involved for different projects. I was hiring sound designers with more experience than me, so that seemed super promising and exciting. I loved the idea of working with people that I could learn from, since for most of my career I’ve been working by myself and learning as I go. I also got two interns working with me on a regular basis, the idea being that I would train them and eventually they would start absorbing some of my workload. I communicated what was I was doing to all my clients and we got the ball rolling.
DS: Why do you feel it didn’t work out?
EOF: For almost all of the projects I’ve worked on, I’ve been the sole sound person (other than the composers). I’ve always had creative freedom to do what I want, and have had a lot of control over whether or not that actually gets achieved. The obvious limitations being: the time scheduled to do the project, programmer bandwidth for audio related things, and my own skill level.
I learned that I like this control, and when I hired other people to work for me, I had to let go of of it in big ways. The people I was working with had different ideas, different tastes, and different workflows. This meant that achieving my own vision became tedious. The more people I added between myself and the end product, the more difficult the whole process became.
It also didn’t help that I found it hard directing other people’s creative process and output. I felt weird about projecting my ideas and expectations onto others. Just because I have my tastes and opinions, it doesn’t mean someone is wrong if they disagree. Robin Arnott (sound designer for Antichamber) and I work in the same studio, so we usually hear what each other is working on. The truth is, we often have different opinions on how any given aspect of a game should sound, and that’s not a bad thing. Sound design is a creative/expressive craft, so having that individuality is important. For that very reason I felt weird imposing my point of view on another sound designer.
Last year I got involved in a project as audio director and was working with a very talented and well known sound designer. I was designing the audio systems in game, making the asset lists, and doing the implementation/mix. He was taking care of creating all the assets and iterating on them under my direction. When it came down to it, everything he made I would have done very differently. It wasn’t bad work by any means, he’s a talented guy who’s worked on many successful games. But it just wasn’t representing my point of view in any way and I couldn’t get over that. It became difficult for me to direct him and get myself invested in the project. How do I direct someone on how to do their job when I don’t really identify with it? Eventually, I had to let go of the project. It just wasn’t working for me, that whole process of doing things. To me, the design, implementation and iteration processes are all strongly connected. You think about one aspect when your are working on the other. It seemed too fragmented for me to be designing systems and someone else making the sounds for them. Then me implementing those sounds, so he could iterate on them later. Some companies may do it this way, but for me personally it just doesn’t work. So that was a big wake up call in better understanding my process when working with game audio.
Another thing I discovered is that when you are managing other people, you are not only managing their creative output. You’re also managing their work habits, their personalities, their schedule, their motivation, their productivity, etc. And oh man, that just seemed like way too much to think about. When all I really cared about was making great audio for a great game.
So, I learned that I don’t really want to be anyone’s boss, director, or manager. That’s not what I do best. I will always be open and excited about collaborating with other talented people, including other sound designers, but not from a management point of view. So, if I no longer want to hire other sound designers, then I really have no reason to convert to a company. That does mean that I’m taking on less projects, but that’s OK. Less is more, that’s my new philosophy.
DS: Would you dissuade others from trying that path?
EOF: No, I wouldn’t. I do hope that sharing my experience will help others decide what works best for them, but the best way to know if something is right for you is to try it. Don’t be afraid to fail. I failed in upscaling to a company, but in doing so I found more confidence in working on my own as a freelancer.
Just because something works for me doesn’t mean that it will work for you, or that it’s the best fit for every project/team out there. We all have different personalities, different strengths, and different ways of working. I suggest you throw yourself (fuck fear!) into different situations and find out what works best for YOU.
DS: What are you looking forward over the next year?
EOF: I look forward to finishing some of the games I’m currently working on and having a bit more time to invest on my own personal projects. I would love to learn how to code, create my own video games and board games, and maybe dive back into making music again. I’d also like do more traveling and invest more time in being healthier as a person, both mentally and physically. Working crazy hours for so long has started to take a toll, even if it’s all been worth it and it’s truly been a privilege. So I want to work on creating balance in my life. I love working on games, I love working on sound, and I love collaborating with other truly talented people. But I also love just working on my own creative projects and ideas, so it’ll be nice to be able to do that as well.