DS: Like many other audio professionals that I know, you’ve got a background in music. Do you consider that the driving force behind entering an audio profession? How did that background in musical performance affect your first foray into audio production?
JS: Since musicians are attuned to their aural surroundings, either naturally or through training, they’re also instinctively aware of the importance and influence of sound in media like video games and film. This awareness led me to the field of sound design and that seems to be the case with almost every other audio professional I’ve met. It’s certainly helpful to work with other musicians because we’ve all inherited a vocabulary of articulation, dynamics and tempo that can be applied directly to sound design, editing and mix.
My sense of phrasing and dynamics in sound design is largely due to my background in music. Like many sound designers, when describing the design of a sound or scene, I often find myself “conducting” my way through a verbalization of what I’m hearing in my head. This is why sound designers don’t talk about their work in public; people might think we’re crazy. Most importantly, performing has given me a natural education in mix, especially my performances with orchestra and chorale.
DS: You’ve also studied computer science. What was the motivation for that, and how did you envision these two fields merging in your life?
JS: When I was preparing to enter the field of game development, I realized that many game audio professionals were expected to implement and troubleshoot their work at the code level. During my studies in programming, I concentrated on building a simple audio engine and then integrating it into a larger development project. Meanwhile, my friends in Berklee’s Music Synthesis program were using the Csound programming language and early versions of Max/MSP to create sounds unlike anything I’d heard before. I wanted in on the action and my studies in C/C++ and procedural programming helped me hit the ground running.
With the robust offerings in audio middleware available today, sound designers typically don’t need to dig down to the code level to get their work done. Still, game engines and tools are growing increasingly complex to meet the scale and scope of modern titles. I consider a strong technical background to be a huge benefit for keeping up with the constant changes and for interfacing with the tech team.
DS: How would you describe your transition from music into sound design? It seems like there’s been a fairly linear progression through the games you’ve worked on.
JS: To be honest, I was concerned that moving into sound design would be more of a fork in the road than a transition, almost as though I’d have to sacrifice music to pursue sound design or vice versa. This has proven true to some extent because on large-scale projects, no one person has the bandwidth to do it all. The good news is that the modern aesthetic in game audio and cinema is blurring the lines between sound design and underscore. It’s exciting for me to hear the fields of sound design and music complementing each other, playing off one another, and arriving at a soundscape that wouldn’t have been possible given a more traditional separation of the two disciplines. I’ve embraced this aesthetic entirely.
Day-to-day, I find that I create individual sounds, compose scenes, and mix in a very musical fashion. When I look back at the work I’m happiest with, it’s always a place where I’ve developed the sound or scene “musically” in terms of voicing, articulation, and timbre.
DS: What, or who, have been some of your biggest influences sonically? What do you bring from those influences to your work?
JS: Wow, there are so many personalities and projects that have shaped my sonic style. My strongest influences come from the worlds of music and film sound. On the music side, Björk and Amon Tobin have had a huge impact on my sound design and personal aesthetic. I love the way Björk’s songwriting and vocal performances drift between haunting and visceral. If I can capture that same emotional range in my work, I know I’m doing something right. I consider Amon Tobin to be equal parts sound designer and musician. Deconstructing his music is some of the best sound design education you can get.
In the field of film sound, I’ve been heavily inspired by the work of Ben Burtt, Walter Murch, and Randy Thom. All three of them are incredibly committed to detail and quality, but more importantly they design, edit and mix thoughtfully, always complementing the overarching narrative of their films. Another thing that draws me to these three is their ability to articulate how and why they arrive at their conclusions and practices. Their lectures and articles have proven more valuable than any other resource in my career.
DS: Is there anything you do to find new influences and inspiration? What do you prioritize in continuing to hone your craft?
JS: One of the biggest challenges for an in-house game audio professional is staying current in popular culture and in the trends of audio itself. In an age of unprecedented and convenient access to games, film, music and literature, that challenge gets a lot more manageable. I draw a lot of inspiration from music and film. Spotify and sites like nme.com help me keep tabs on the latest developments in music. Netflix is my go-to outlet for discovering independent and foreign films that are hard to come by in the theaters. Most importantly, my friends and colleagues who share those same influences keep me informed of their latest discoveries.
One thing I keep in the back of my head while working on a multi-year project is that the tastes and trends in audio are always changing. I know that the sonic expectations of the entire world are being shaped by the latest releases in gaming, film and music. If I hear something unique in a new game, for instance, I immediately ask myself “Could I create that if I needed to?” because chances are, that sound will be referenced by someone on a future project. If the answer to my question is even a “maybe”, I get to work trying to recreate the scene or individual sound effect. It’s not just a good exercise professionally, it’s the type of discovery and experimentation that keeps things interesting, challenging and fun.
DS: In your career thus far, what has been your favorite challenge?
JS: My favorite challenge has been developing and adapting my sound design to meet the needs of multiple game genres. So far I’ve worked in the genres of real-time strategy, city building, sports, fighting and first-person shooter. Each genre has brought with it a tremendous amount of discovery and a new set of audio challenges. The perspective shift from top down to first person, for example, has been a huge eye opener in terms of new avenues and constraints for audio.
One thing that I always enjoy is deconstructing the legacy of each genre and the expectations from core players of that genre. I like to identify those expectations early on to ensure I’m meeting, and hopefully exceeding, what fans have come to expect from the aesthetic and player feedback of each genre.
DS: What kind of things do you do to advocate for audio throughout the rest of the development team?
JS: I learned early on that without advocacy, audio can easily fall off the radar for the rest of the studio. It doesn’t help that the audio team is typically working behind closed doors. I’ve made a concerted effort to promote the audio team within each studio by reaching out to other departments and developing the mutually beneficial relationship that can, and should, exist between them and the audio team. The key here is that talking is not enough. I show artists and designers how audio can develop their ideas with prototypes rather than trying to explain it with words or on paper. And I’ve yet to meet an artist or designer who isn’t excited to see his or her work come alive after an audio pass. Many times those prototypes lead to iteration on the original artistic or design concept resulting in a stronger end result.
I’m also a strong promoter for audio being included in the concept and pre-production phases of a development cycle. Most modern game projects are too large for audio to be treated strictly as a post-production department. I feel that the most memorable and best sounding games are those where audio is a contributing voice from the start.
DS: What developments in game audio make you excited for the future of that industry?
JS: Two things: The availability of incredible middleware and the independent game development scene. With industrial-strength audio middleware freely available to professional sound designers and students alike, new discoveries are being made all the time in terms of implementation. It means that students are going to come into the game development field already trained up on the tools we use day to day. Middleware still comes with its own technical challenges, but for game audio professionals, I think the scales are now weighted much more heavily on the side of creativity.
The independent film scene has brought us some of the most experimental and creative audio in the field of cinema. I believe independent games are headed in that same direction. Just as independent film sound is informing the sound of major motion picture, I believe the sound of independent games will influence the work of game audio professionals everywhere.
DS: What are you currently working on?
JS: I’m working on Bioshock Infinite at Irrational Games.
DS: Do you have any advice for people interested in entering game audio as a profession?
JS: First and foremost: No reel, no deal. I’m consistently surprised when I meet people who want to get into the audio field, game-related or otherwise, and haven’t created a demo reel of any kind. You live and die by your latest work in this industry and a reel is required for even most internships. There are free audio/music apps available for download and there are plenty of places to host your content once it’s ready.
Next, and this might seem obvious, I advise aspiring game audio professionals to play games! Knowing both the pitfalls and the paths to success that have come before you is invaluable. More importantly, a sound designer well-versed and well-played in video games holds a common vocabulary that can be used to interact with all team members at a game studio.
And finally, I encourage aspiring game audio professionals to use the copious amounts of information and software available on the net to learn the tools of the trade. The same tools we use every day, both audio middleware and game engines, are available to anyone with an internet connection. Download them, start learning, and start experimenting!