Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with 10+ year Sound Designer and all around audio veteran Andrew Dearing to chat about a topic in which I will admit I know very little about: the world of freelance. With the recent boom in technology over the last decade, it’s no wonder that creatives are starting to find viable and even stable careers out of remote connections and outsourcing opportunities. Many people, like Andrew, have made this leap successfully, while even more still asked themselves, what would it be like to become an audio freelancer? Read on to find out how this one guy took his Sound Design experience in some of the leading AAA studios (Amazon Studios, Double Helix Games, and Obsidian Entertainment) and turned it into an opportunity of a lifetime.
Ashley Coull (AC): What made you decide to leave the world of “in-house” audio and take the leap into freelance sound design?
Andrew Dearing (AD): The dream is to place my experience in a collaborative effort towards establishing a brand. That would be amazing! There’s always room for new concepts that are bold and unique. Every now and then an indie movie completely overcomes Hollywood, and the same thing is possible in any medium. Nowadays, it’s never been easier for game developers, in terms of access to technology. This should be the golden age of video games.
AD: Looking at it from the other perspective, a small team is going to be stoked to get the AAA audio treatment. We all know the impact audio can make on the perceived value of a product. I’d love to leverage audio to catapult IPs. That’s the point. I’m an audio guy, but I want a say at the executive level.
AC: First, you mention the idea of “establishing a brand.” For you, what does that mean? Why is branding important to you? I say, honestly, in part because I think you’ve tapped into something that many game audio people struggle with. Are you saying that by having your own brand, you could bring new bold and unique concepts to game audio?
AD: The way I see it, a brand is the concept that persists beyond one product. It speaks to the philosophy that makes the business tick. There are a lot of companies that do this, and by doing so their staying power is much more concrete. They really think out the goals of the experience, and the products are unified to reflect this. What I mean by executive level is co-founder etc. Being in the industry for a while, you learn that the audio discipline gets crushed by indecision, scoping issues, and feature creep. One day, I want to be part of an executive level to help steer the audio brand from the pre-production phase and on.
AC: “Golden age of video games.” What a great statement! It has the kind of confidence and idealism that I think people can rally behind. Can you elaborate on how that causes the golden age for video games?
AD: Haha, yeah why not!? It wasn’t that long ago that it used to cost money to even have access to this technology. Now they are essentially free, with impressive content stores. I’m amazed how quickly a prototype can come together with the right people in a matter of months. I tend to have more of the old school “pitch” philosophy though. I admit it’s a tough sell as startups don’t really need audio in the same way they need programmers, designers, animators, artists etc. I love it though when I talk to developers that understand how audio will help make their product viable. That tells me they care about the whole experience equally. In my opinion the most successful studios have the best audio.
AC: I like how you’re dovetailing your second point into your third point. This is the golden age of video games, as you say. It used to be that when you wanted to work on sounds for linear or non-linear projects, you needed to be in studios. Because of that, average people like you and me are able to create audio for small teams that might not have had the capital to afford one of those big studios. When you say that a “small team is going to be stoked to get the AAA audio treatment,” what aspects of that relationship are you focusing on?
AD: Building trust primarily. This is key. Making games is extremely iterative. Coming from an in-house background, I know to get the best results possible you must question the mix, take on feedback and change things. The phrase “AAA audio treatment,” doesn’t come across right, and it’s kind of undefinable. I think I was trying to say “big budget ultra-polish sound.” How else can I explain this?
AD: From my experience I get references for a sound from a game or a movie with a much bigger team and budget. At some point you have to accept the quality bar that is set for you. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I’m incredibly thankful for the duality. There’s a great concept I learned at Amazon about setting a goal that’s a bit beyond the scope of reality. By setting an aggressive goal, the idea is you’re more likely to fail with it further past the success of something less ambitious. A lot of my career so far – that’s been on me. I’ve gotten significantly better by making more mistakes. I can’t think of a good way of roping this back other than to say, moving forward, new projects I work on are the beneficiaries of this kind of R&D.
AC: By becoming a freelancer, were there any professional changes that you wanted to see happen? Type of work you did, for example?
AD: Going Freelance has always been a very alluring prospect to me. I’ve been a bit jealous of the outsourced sound designers and composers I’ve worked with in the past. Whether through Skype or drive, they gave me a glimpse of their day to day. Hearing of their musings was so inspiring that it would leave me thinking, “They got it made!” I can’t explain it though, it just fits my personality. I’m naturally attracted to the lifestyle. I’m also a home studio snob. My home rig is on point these days, been working towards it since I was 16. It’s the result of a slow and steady upgrade from the Tascam cassette 4 track.
AC: I’m willing to bet this is something that many people have thought in the past. What was it about the outsourcers that you were jealous of? Was it the fact that they were working from home? Their flexible hours? The kind of work they were typically asked to do, versus the kind of work that the in-house audio team did? It seems like you touch on this when you say, “Skype or drive, they gave me a glimpse of their day to day.”
AD: You know how audio folks are, just geeking out about audio. I tend to become friends in some capacity with everyone I collaborate with, and I’ve been fortunate in this way. Some games have had lengthy productions, and at the end of it, it’s just a whole experience. Lots of sharing knowledge and concepts, not just pertaining to audio but life too. Healthy collaboration is key. The other aspect is lengthy company purchase requests vs freelance instant approval. I always approve 100% of my purchase requests. :)
AC: Was there something exciting about freelance work that you felt couldn’t happen for you as part of an “in-house” audio team?
AD: I’ve done the in-house bit now for a decade and would like to have my go at freelance. It’s pretty straight-forward. I don’t care so much about working on the biggest titles as much as I care more about delivering the best sound. The theory is my rate of improvement will be exponential as freelance with exposure to various aesthetics and time constraints. It’s early on into this, but so far this has been proving to be true. So long as I’m being challenged and learning from it, that’s my jam. I love it.
AC: I’m intrigued by your theory about your rate of improvement being so much greater with freelance. I have never heard of this before, but now that you mention it, I think it’s a strong argument. What are the various aesthetics that contribute to this rate of improvement?
AD: Shifting gears on different projects is amazingly refreshing. It’s always a struggle to put the essence of this into words, but I tend to hear an idea in my head, a starting place rather, and it goes back to what the sound needs to achieve. In terms of aesthetics, each product is unique and needs the sound to paint a different picture. It’s great to spend extra time on iteration, and having the studio right here is easy to jump on. When I can’t get the sound right, it stays on my mind. In a way by spending more time with it, I’m just making more mistakes
AC: Ten years of development is impressive. When you look back, does it seem like 10 years or a more of a blur?
AD: I can’t believe it’s been that long, it doesn’t feel like it. When I started out as an intern, I expected to fail. Not so much due to the impostor syndrome thing, but more to do with my impression of others capabilities. The bar is constantly being pushed further. Everyone is hustling, and it’s inspiring to be influenced by it. I remember various crests in my career thinking I was doing everything possible, and then I would be lucky enough to work alongside someone else working harder, smarter etc. My big takeaway is trying not to get into a comfort zone before rethinking concepts and working my ass off.
Always Moving Forward
AC: What are some of the steps you are taking to keep your network open and to keep new or recurring projects coming in?
AD: Thus far, the right gigs have come at the right time. Truth be told, I did not plan to go down this route so soon. I’m a huge Charles Deenen fan and had been sending my work his way. One day he suggested I could work with him, and I jumped at the opportunity. I’ve gotten to work on a handful of gigs, which is amazing, but so far, it’s not a replacement to a full-time gig. Honestly though, the knowledge gain alone was worth the risks. Pacing with that crew is really inspiring. Anyways, I’d say this is my biggest aspect of trial and error with freelance, but it’s what it took to get things started. Things have a funny way of working out and I have no regrets. :)
AC: I think the courage you had to jump at an opportunity that presented itself is something that very few people have.What are the positive aspects of working with Charles Deenen?
AD: Everything. Charles Deenen and his crew are the best in the biz. It’s like working for Spielberg or Steve Jobs, as the intent and thought process is on a whole other level. They go up for awards where 70% of the possibilities are them, and when you hear their work it’s no wonder why.
AC: How do you balance the need for business development against actual work?
AD: I really haven’t done too much biz dev. I haven’t unleashed the real core business yet, at least not in the way I see it long term. I have a concept, a brand you could say, that I’m happy with and am nearing completion on the outward facing materials. It takes a lot of time to do it right. In the meantime I’m focused on the initial gigs channeling my brand values.
AC: Do you miss going to work every day?
AD: Hahaha, I do go to work every day! :D I presume you mean going to a place of business/putting on pants and leaving the house? Yeah, of course good colleagues are hard to replace! I worked with the Double Helix/Amazon crew for 6 years. That’s a long time, and we went through a lot together. It was a great crew! There are so many inside jokes and ridiculous stories encapsulated from different periods of time. Donny Waters could write a book.
AC: Do you have an idea of how long you want to maintain this current trajectory? A year? 5 years? As long as possible?
AD: I’d like to be in it for the long haul, but I’ve made sure to front load a lot of R&D time and to push myself as a sound designer. That remains fundamental before everything else. I love being methodical when I’m making sounds to take visions further. “Extreme goldilocksing” just to see what happens. For example, at the moment I’m outputting sounds at a higher quality bar than even a month ago by focusing on building a “designed” SFX library. It’s the best challenge I can think of. This pushes me to field record and experiment with source sounds in new ways. It makes me think in different ways and be analytical as a sound designer. Dissecting sounds to learn from them. In a way, by prioritizing these types of things, no matter the outcome of my foray into freelance, I’ll view this time as a tremendous success, because for me, I know I’m utilizing my time in the right ways.
AC: We’re almost out of time, do you have any closing thoughts?
AD: This was fun, thanks for my first interview! Closing out I’ll just say one thing I recently discovered that has been making my sounds better. I used to get caught up in the plugins I was using. Now, I view the plugins as a byproduct of being caught in the sound I’m after. This may come across redundant, or stupid/obvious, but to me it’s all the difference and a key mistake I had to overcome. I tend to overthink the simple things, it’s a common theme for me anyways. Overlooking even my own field recordings. The raw recordings can be pushed and can be good elements; don’t judge the raw source next to super polished designed stuff. I’ve poked my head down a lot of rabbit holes. I’m thankful for all the experiences, it’s the best way to learn. It’s just where the sounds have led me.
AD: And lastly, interviews are always more fun with some processing concepts.
- Feed the amplitude of the waveform as the control to modulate plugin parameters and get a degree of self automation.
- Upwards compression is great to invigorate concussive tails, like explosions or guns. It brings up the noise floor a lot, but once that’s treated it’s worth it to get that DICE vibe.
- Declick your tails
- Roll off Top Frequencies for non-critical sounds, in the ballpark of 8 ““ 12k.
- Set a low band crossover that Mono-izes the low band frequencies to clean up the bass focus.
- Aggressively De-Reverberate concussive material that isn’t reverberant, can produce some stylized attacks
- Transient Designers + Sub harmonic generators + Harmonic Distortion = mo’ “phat”
- Multiband Denoisers as replacement of EQ can be the right way to go for ambiences
- FFMPEG bat line to convert videos is free and super easy to change up ref video formats and clamp the settings to your specifications. Example bat: ffmpeg -i “Video.avi” -vcodec mjpeg -r 29.97 -q:v 3 -s hd720 “Video.mov”
Thank you to Andrew Dearing for all the hard work he put into making this article a reality! If you’d like to connect with him directly, you can email him at adearingsound AT gmail.com.