Let’s get started with the Rob Bridgett Special, with a exclusive interview for Designing Sound. We talk about his work as sound designer, the evolution of his carreer, and some technical info.
Designing Sound: Hello Rob, first of all: At what point in your life did you decided to start working with sound?
Rob Bridgett: Hi Miguel,I think it is fair to say that I came to actual sound design fairly late, when I was around 27 or 28. I was a musician in various bands during the late 1980’s and early 1990s and eventually left that behind to study cinema at the University of Derby in 1994. The film course at Derby was a theory only course, no practical film-making, it concentrated purely on the analysis of film as text and in that sense it introduced me to a lot of amazing writing about cinema as well as lots of ideas about the language of film. It wasn’t until the third and final year of that degree that I elected to take the Sound & Music module, which was then run by Gianluca Sergi, author of ‘The Dolby Era’. That was the first time that I’d actually realised that the soundtracks to these films were being deliberately composed and mixed from hundreds of tracks, the idea of Foley was one I think I had been aware previously, but until the moment that I was shown the escape scene in ‘The Fugitive’ and made to think about the intricate mix of all the elements in the soundtrack, that it really became something that I wanted to be involved in.
After completing my Bachelor’s degree at Derby I spent some time attempting to get onto the Film Music Master’s programme at the University of Bournemouth. The intake for the course was really selective, I think only around four or five students were selected each year, but I did get an interview. Somehow during the course of the interview I was offered a place on a much newer course that they had only just started one year previously, a Master’s programme called ‘Sound Design for the Moving Image’ (Now called ‘Soundtrack Production: Sound Design for the Screen’). This was in 1998. This was really the beginning of any practical experience in working with sound to picture, and even my first experience of working with sound editing software. I think the biggest and most important aspect, certainly in terms of practical elements of that course, was the fact that the sound students all worked with the animation students and film students on their projects.
The way it was, and still is, set up mimics actual production, so knowledge of working with clients on a collaborative effort became a focus. The course leader, Stephen Deutsch, is very vocal in quoting from his own experiences as a composer in saying that when he started out he’d always thought that film makers were making films for him to put his music onto, but that he quickly learned that the abandonment of the composer’s, or sound designer’s ego is perhaps the biggest lesson to learn about working in the industry. Needless to say there were many other beneficial things to come out of the MA at Bournemouth, but the other main one for me is that the software was pretty much irrelevant. You need to be able to operate the equipment, you need to be technically proficient, but this was only the vehicle with which to convey ideas with sound. All sequencers, Nuendo, Protools, Logic, DP, whatever it is, all essentially do the same thing.
Some are better at certain tasks than others, and people get comfortable with particular environments and work flows, but in the end, and certainly this has been proven out in my short career so far, software changes all the time, from company to company and especially in proprietary audio tools, you need to understand what you want to get out of the tools a lot more than how to go about achieving the sounds technically.
DS: What was the hardest thing for you when you were starting out?
RB: The most challenging thing for me was adjusting from going from a Master’s degree course to starting, effectively, at the bottom in the audio industry as a recording engineer. I’d been learning all these amazing artistic techniques and ideas and coming out of the Master’s degree with a huge amount of student debt, I’d expected to be ‘in demand’ and able to work in film sound and be able to pay off some of that debt. All my friend’s from the animation courses were getting really great jobs in London working on feature films at effects post houses. It was a pretty depressing time, for about 8 months I applied for hundreds of jobs, or just wrote introductory letters to film sound companies trying to get in the door. I actually had one or two interviews with post production sound studios in London and came away pretty deflated and unimpressed.
I had a couple of ‘very nearly’ job offers, at least very interested parties, one in particular I remember was a Audio Motion in Banbury, a large motion-capture facility that had some really exciting facial capture rigs hooked right into the voice recording process, this excited me a lot, and was a lot more in line with what I wanted to be doing. The second ‘nearly’ was at a small production house in Reading called ‘Matinee’. I interviewed for a sound engineer job, but didn’t get it. A few months later they got in touch again and they had another position available, they were particularly interested in my sound design focused skills as not many other engineers were focused or interested in that direction, mostly being more into the music production side, so the sound design aspect did eventually serve me well in setting me apart from the crowd a little. My official title was ‘Recording Engineer’ and recording and editing voice-over was the bulk of the work, but it varied quite a bit, I even did my first game sound design gig with Matinee working on ‘Vanishing Point’ for the Dreamcast. This was in June 2000 and I was there for just over a year before moving into another sound designer position in London working for Antenna Audio, who create interactive museum and gallery guides. Shortly after taking that job I was offered my first in-house audio role at a video games company, at Climax, who were at the time based in Fareham and working on the Xbox exclusive Sudeki RPG, which I had no choice but to take. The job was as composer, sound designer and sound implementer – essentially an ‘audio director plus’ but I think the attitude in those days, even still today to some extent, is that one person could do all this audio on a game.
It was actually a really great opportunity to get experienced in a wide variety of different roles, and many people who entered into the industry around that time will have similar experience of being the audio person for the entire studio and having a hand in everything. Going back and thinking about the film sound jobs that I was looking at around the same time, because that industry was so much more compartmentalised and had very specific audio jobs, it was always difficult to see the bigger picture with film sound, especially at an entry level, which is kind of where my head has always been at since doing the sound design MA. Here in games, suddenly everything I’d been learning about film sound, the ideas and directorial / collaborative aspects of sound on a project were coming into play.
DS: You said that you were a musician in various bands… Do you still compose music? I noticed you have several electronic/experimental albums available on iTunes and Bandcamp… Can you tell us something more about that project?
RB: Yes, I still write a lot of music when I have time, mainly as an escape from the kinds of structures that I’ll be working with on video games. The releases available on iTunes are broadly electronic/ambient. There is a ‘Roomtones’ project which i’ve been working on for around the last three years now, which involves collecting roomtones from various interesting spaces, like Skywalker ranch for example, and augmenting those ambience recordings with some subtle rhythmic interference and tonal elements. The approach for that release in particular is inspired a lot by Chris Watson’s recordings on the Touch label, I really like the way that he organises his field recordings into a narrative on CD. My goal with most tracks is to create a really static atmosphere that allows the listener a lot of space, I hear that the music is very good for insomniacs!
DS: I can see that you have worked in several companies first as a sound designer, but your title change as Sound Director in 2003, how was that? Why “Sound Director”?
RB: The change in title coincided with my relocation to Vancouver to work for Radical in August 2003. In game sound, I guess what is known as a ‘Sound Designer’ (a term coined by Walter Murch) on a film is actually the same role as an ‘Audio Director’ or ‘Sound Director’ on a game development team. I think it is in order to gain equality with the Art Director and Technical Director roles in games. So for most of my time on a project I am designing sound effects and implementing those sounds in the game, just as you would expect a sound designer to do, with the additional role of responsibility for the overall soundtrack in the game, dialogue, music, final mix during the whole of production. I typically have a great deal of involvement in shaping and directing how all of those areas work and sound within the game.
The role changes a lot over the course of production actually. These days rather than writing all the music myself, I will hire a composer, and at various points in production different ‘for hire’ skills are required to be brought onto a project. I think we’ll get into this etymology a little more in one of your exclusives later on this month, but its good to make that distinction here that the film term Sound Designer is pretty much the equivalent to Sound Director over here in video game land. Anyway, the term ‘Sound Designer’ was basically the job title back in the UK, and here in North America the title was ‘Audio Director’.
DS: You have spoken several times about the formal-study and University. But .. What do you think about self-taught sound designers? There are many people out there learning by themselves through books, websites, trial-error, etc .. Do you think there are opportunities for them too?
RB: I really do recommend some kind of formal study, whether in music, game design or any kind of sound related field, either technical or theoretical. I also recommend that to compliment any formal study, you get your hands dirty. Teaching yourself, or learning through direct experience of working on projects is just as critical as any theoretical background. When you are working on projects with clients, it’s not really wise to be quoting theory, the people you are working with won’t find that useful, it’s best always to just talk with your collaborators and try things out, leaving the theory for the post-mortems and articles where you can think about the ideas and what they mean with greater clarity, and also with hindsight. There was a good quote, I think from the ‘School of Sound’ in 2007, “Theory without practice is sterile and pratice without theory is blind”. The two absolutely go together in production work.
DS: Has living in Vancouver helped your career?
RB: I’ve had some great opportunities and worked on some great projects here. Vancouver is quite unlike anywhere else in the world for video game development. There is a huge concentration of development here, and even though I have only worked here at Radical in Vancouver, I have many friends and colleagues who also work in town in game audio. There is a good sense of community here, despite everyone working for different publishers, and generally a willingness to help one another out. The game audio community is very small, practically everyone is connected by only a couple of degrees of separation, even more so here in Vancouver.
There are also some very good game audio educational resources here in Vancouver, and they have links to the many developers including Radical. We have hosted tours of the studio for students of the Vancouver Film School and the Vancouver Art Institute as they both have game audio programmes and are more than happy to be as involved as we can be in helping de-mystify the game audio development process for students, most folks working in games today have been in their shoes at some point, and its great to be able to help out. Not only that, but these schools are training up our next generation of talent and we need to bring fresh blood into the industry that can quickly adapt to interactive, non-linear development and proprietary tool environments.
DS: Some people say that video games should stay as “games”. Many others try to take video games to more-realistic levels where you are immersed into the game world, undoubtedly the sound has an important role to play in that process.. Do you have any thoughts in particular about this?
RB: The choice whether or not to follow a cinematic sound direction is almost always dictated by the kind of game being created. The genre of game and the intended audience play huge roles not only in determining the sonic style of the sound design, music and dialogue, but also the amount of compression and output level of the final audio mix. Some game soundtracks sound nothing like motion picture soundtracks and follow entirely different dynamic paths and internal rules. There is always the notion of ‘game-play’, of ‘immersion’ and ‘fun’ in games that sound has a duty to augment. However, repetitive audio that annoys the player or pulls them out of the fun in the moment is always a concern.
This is not dissimilar to the role that sound plays in film, to support the story and characters, and above all for the elements of production to remain invisible and non-distracting to the audience. Games in certain genres have already forged their own aesthetic and are certainly not aesthetically tied to film in any way. There is certainly no danger to games from film, new game types and genres are being released all the time and very few have anything remotely to do with cinema sound style other than having well produced and balanced audio. A great deal of the ‘blockbuster’ titles, such as Call of Duty, Halo, GTA, are all concerned with what I like to call ‘cinematization’, in that their style and presentation are very similar to motion picture sound design and take a great deal of influence from film for their style. Orchestral scores written by film composers, detailed and bespoke sound effects design and dialogue that is produced to sound like it does in Hollywood action films, are all elements of this cinematization of style. Personally, this is a style I particularly enjoy in games, it is getting to the point where you can put a game side by side with an action sequence in a film and have trouble telling the difference.
At the high end, the mix levels are now similar, sample rates are effectively the same, the dynamics and the lack of dialogue scenes are perhaps the only things that still give away the difference, but this style of game is heading in a good direction.
DS: The levels, I also wanted to ask about this .. We all know about the growing problem of dynamic range and sound levels on videogames. How do you treat this problem at work? What is the position of Radical Entertainment in the mixing and mastering processes?
RB: We mix at a reference listening level of 79dB and aim for dialogue peaks of around -12 or at most -4dB. I am currently working with the IESD group in an attempt to publish a receommendation sheet for these basic mixing and listening levels when doing a final mix on a title. Hopefully, more info on this should be available within the next 6 months or so.
DS: How do you see the sound in the video games today? What do you think could be the next step?
RB: We have a huge range of genres in games right now, with so many different sonic styles, I only see that getting wider and of higher quality. There are trends towards and away from cinematic presentation happening simultaneously. There will be bigger and bigger budgets on a few titles like there are with Hollywood movies, and there will also be smaller and smaller budgets in other areas of the industry as there are with independent movies, and they will all do interesting and unique things with sound as a part of their experience. Right now we have some superb interactive mixing technology in games, which is something that wasn’t around for the last generation of games.
We’ll see more realtime manipulation of sounds at run-time, more processing power allowing more DSP and more available voices. This will mean that less and less manipulation need be done ‘offline’ in the production of the sound, dialogue and music, and more ‘online’ rule based implementation and sound design will probably occur. Again, I’m not sure what genres of games this will benefit more than others. I still see the availability of more time at the end of production for sound to iterate, mix and polish as being missing right now from game producer’s consciousness, but it is getting there.
DS: Do you like the work that young sound designers are doing today? How do you see the current and next generation of sound designers?
RB: It feels kind of premature to talk about younger sound designers or a next generation of game sound designers when the current generation are only really just getting started, or at least that’s how it feels. If you are an audio director in-house with a developer, you may only get to work on one project every three years. That’s an incredibly slow work rate, when you consider freelancers who only may work on one small part of a game’s soundtrack, can notch up as many as 3 or 5 credits a year, sometimes more, and similarly film sound designers who can work on a similar number of projects in a year. This is because the development of audio in a game is a full-time job right from the beginning of production until the end and seeing that process through is a very big commitment.
DS: What are your main “weapons” in the studio?
RB: I currently use Nuendo as a DAW along with Altiverb reverbs, speakerphone and Waves plug-ins. Soundminer is also essential as my main source fast access to sample libraries. These are pretty much the basics, from there anything goes – it comes down to whatever can I get my hands on to get the sounds I need, but really the majority of sound manipulation I do on a regular basis is combining library and bespoke sounds and using slight pitch alteration, EQ, and fade in and out envelopes, that’s 90% of the sound design and sound editing work, no tricks really, just working with the material.
DS: Do you use proprietary software to work with sound at Radical Entertainment?
RB: Yes. We have a proprietary audio engine and interface called ‘Audio Builder’. We’ve used it here at Radical for the last 10 or so years as far as I can tell, it has gone through many different iterations. We have found that there is a distinct advantage in such in-house tools in that the code can very quickly be changed to suit the exact needs of a particular project, our tools team generally only supports one or two teams worth of feature requests. Pretty much any kind of sound implementation you can dream up can be achieved with such custom built systems.
We also have a proprietary dialogue database called UDO (Universal Dialogue Organizer), it is a stand-alone component from the audio engine and is pipeline agnostic so could be used with any audio engine or game engine pipeline, it helps for us to have all our dialogue in one place from the beginning of the project to the end. Having said that about proprietary tools, third party tools are so much more fully featured today than they were 5 or 10 years ago, and they have to be, I actually think some of the third party tools are getting into more sophisticated areas of development now that allow sound designers and implementers to build more unique objects and content through more modular systems, which is exciting.
DS: For you what is the most important process in the creation of sound for video games?
RB: Sitting down with various members of the design team, coders or art team, working directly with them and collaborating on the game is absolutely crucial. This is the part of the job that never gets depicted in and rarely talked about in audio focused interviews or features, and this is really where most of the sound designer’s work happens, not in the studio.
DS: Are you influenced by certain sound designer/artist in particular? Someone you admire?
RB: The thing I like about sound design, and about very good sound designers is that there is little in the way of a signature style that you can point to and say, oh that’s the work of Walter Murch or Ren Klyce, they leave their egos at the door and work towards benefiting the film. The same can be said of really proficient sound designers and audio directors working in games, these people are known for good, solid quality work and effective sound design, not sonic styles. It is always great when boundaries are pushed and new things are done, in production as much as in the finished game, but that can’t occur all the time for every title. I admire the work of a lot of my peers in the industry, Tom Colvin (Ninja Theory), Kenny Young (Media Molecule), I also love listening to (and playing) the work coming out of Ubisoft’s Montreal studio as well as the work done recently by EA’s Don Veca.
All these guys are doing great things and working really hard at what they do, and they are more often than not writing about it and sharing ideas and production techniques, which I admire a great deal. Going back to film sound, I admire and respect the work of Randy Thom a great deal, one of the high points in my career was to get to work with him directly. I’m also greatly inspired by his role as an ambassador for sound in all media, especially film, but equally in video games, he sees the potential and opportunities in games for great sound; this comes across clearly in the video interview I did with him for Scarface, which I believe you have a link to on your site somewhere.
DS: How long you play video games? What are your favorite titles of all time?
RB: I’ve played since the early 1980’s. I’ve grown up with games as an influence from arcades to the ZX Spectrum and all the way through to the current consoles. I have a great nostalgia for some of the old Spectrum games like Manic Miner, Sabre Wulf, Jet Set Willy and Highway Encounter, but I think that’s just a nostalgia thing, although I do still play those games every now and again on an emulator and they are still fun and I can;t believe how difficult some of them were! A lot of the game I currently enjoy are probably not games that I’d like to have worked on. often the process of working on a game for 2 – 3 years means that you probably don’t ever want to play that game again in your life. I think favourite games are like favourite movies, they change all the time depending on what you are looking for at that moment. I do always come back to GTA though! – Their cut-scenes, story, presentation and open-world game-play is so well executed, they are so far ahead of anything anyone is doing right now in that genre.
DS: I know you’re writing a book. Could you tell something more about this?
RB: Yeah, the book is going to be out early 2010. It is a collection of various articles that I’ve published over the last ten years, all freshly edited along with a great deal of previously unpublished and new articles. There is no technical information in the book and it isn’t a beginner’s guide to sound, the focus, and I guess the theme you can draw underneath all my writing, is the creative and production process – in particular the connections between film sound and game sound. There is a rich lineage and heritage that game sound has inherited from film sound, among other media, and the book explores those themes and connections. For me, writing is a huge part of the process of developing sound for games. I document things that I come across that I think may be common problems that need some kind of solution, or at the very least to be able to share something for which I cannot find any reading material. It also helps me to think about various production issues and to understand them, somehow getting them down on paper and trying to clarify them is a big part of the process for me.
DS: Finally, could you tell us something about your future projects?
RB: I am currently working as audio director on an unnanounced project right now with Radical. Aside from the ‘day job’, I’m also working with the IESD on the reference level standards document and as well as editing the book for release in early next year.
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