This post is for those of you who are passionate about sound, and are wondering how to become a sound designer for videogames, where to start, how to enter the industry, what software and tools you need to know, who to talk to, etc.
I get these kinds of questions a lot, and although there is no magic recipe, no step by step instructions that will guarantee you a successful career in videogames, there are some things that are useful to know, and that can help you develop an attractive curriculum.
What equipment to use and/or start with?
No two sound designers will use the same equipment, but I can tell you a bit about the type of equipment you would need and the workflow. The info that I give here is pretty much minimal requirement. You can most certainly take this much further, but here is what I consider essential, in terms of hardware and software.
The hardware concerns equipment you need in order to record your own sounds:
- microphone (and xlr cable) and/or portable recorder
- audio interface
- decent computer
- good headphones
And the software, which you also need to record, but also to edit and mix:
- a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
Then, when working on an actual game project, you’ll need to implement your sounds into the game. The type of software needed is called audio middleware, and is what will communicate to the game engine and act as a bridge between the audio integration and the game events. Some large companies use their own in-house audio middleware (and game engine), but I’m not going to get into this. On the market, whether your game is made with Unity, Unreal or any other game engine, there are a few options in terms of audio middleware, which are usually compatible with any of the game engines (although not always). Three of them are worth mentioning: Wwise, FMOD and Fabric.
In my opinion, the best one out there is by far Wwise (read the Audio Middleware Comparison post to understand why). If you are working on a commercial title you need to consider licenses, but they usually all have some sort of deal (if not free) for Indie titles, students, or simply to use on non-commercial projects. This middleware is what gives a lot of creative freedom in the interactive design and integration.
To know more about audio integration, a good way to get introduced to the logic behind it is to watch tutorials, such as the Wwise tutorials. The advanced ones can be overwhelming, but the overview ones will be very useful in getting a better understanding of audio integration and how to design sounds with that kind of logic in mind.
You also need Sound Libraries. They are part of the workflow. Especially when working with low budgets and tight schedules, it can be challenging to record all the sounds you need yourself. Using sound banks is a good way to start, starting with good quality sound files and familiarising yourself with the editing process, which is one of the most creative parts of the design.
Be careful though, I strongly suggest to never use a sound directly taken from a sound library, but rather to use that and transform it, process it, layer it with other sounds in order to create your own assets. The reason is that those sounds are recognisable, and it reflects badly on the quality of the game and its originality if the audio content is not unique.
In terms of Digital Audio Workstation, my favorite is by far Reaper. It is very powerful and the license costs barely anything, as opposed to its competitors. Some would recommend Nuendo, Cubase, ProTools, Logic, etc. These are all professional DAWs and will work nicely for sound design. Which one to opt for is mostly a matter of habits and the type of workflow that suits you best (and the budget you have..).
An audio interface will help your computer deal with DAW sessions heavy in effects and plugins, but you could do without for a while if you are just starting and not recording yet. There are some very decently priced entry level audio interfaces from Steinberg (UR22), Focusrite (Scarlet 2i2 or 2i4), and many more. Once you get more serious and do a lot of recording, it might be worth investing in a good audio interface with quality preamps.
If low on finances, you can start recording with a portable recorder instead of getting expensive microphones and audio interface. I own a SONY PCM m10 and it is a very reliable and useful piece of equipment. Other equivalents such as the Zoom are also worth looking into. You can visit the Gear section of this blog to know more about what kind of equipment I use.
Game audio designing tricks
In game audio, you always want to avoid repetition, since hearing the same sounds over and over again, regardless of the quality of these sounds, will most certainly result in the player muting the audio. One way to create variety in game music is to compose a series of music segments that will play in sequence, that could also be layered together in a generative way.
For instance, you could have one loop of music that would serve as a ‘basic layer’, on top of which you could have music stingers or cues (with a few variations for each of them). The possibilities for music integration are endless. One of the key tricks to game music is to integrate the segments in such a way that the music is generative both horizontally and vertically. What this means is that, for instance, instead of having a single basic music layer which loops, imagine this loop actually being made of a few segments which can success each other in any order, or according to set conditions. This is your horizontal generative music. Then, at any moment (or rather depending on your metric and bars and set conditions), music segments and stingers (of which you would have a few variations) are layered additively to the ongoing basic layer. This is your vertical generative music.
In terms of sound effects, the key is to have more than one single sound for one game event. For instance, if a weapon is fired, you would have at least 3 (to put a number on it, but ideally 5 and over) variations of this specific weapon, to be triggered randomly every time it is fired. This avoids being annoyed by hearing the same sound over and over again. That’s variation in its simplest form, but you could also divide your weapon fire sound into 3 or even 4 parts (trigger, fire layer 1, fire layer 2, shell falling), and integrate these sounds (each of them with variations) in such a way that they could combine randomly, resulting in almost never hearing the exact same combination in game. The audio middleware (such as Wwise) would let you do that. It would also provide ‘randomisers’ on pitch, volume and other DSP effects so that you can create even more variations out of the sounds you already have.
- Coherence, unity, identity
When you design sounds for a game, you need to consider a certain idea of ‘sonic identity’. I suppose you could say the same for other media, but I find this to be especially relevant in games, since they are made of various sections, which the player can visit at anytime, from anywhere. A coherence and sonic identity is what will make your audio stand out. This can be achieved through designing, editing, processing and mixing techniques.
A good example of a game feature an amazing sonic identity is LIMBO. The sound integration is seamless, the whole atmosphere of the game is glued together with the sound being so coherent with itself and with the environment. A style has been decided on and has been successfully explored and maintained throughout the game.
How to get better at creating music/soundscapes for games?
Play a lot of games and listen. Try to notice what sort of game parameters affect the music (danger, discoveries, success/failure, etc etc). If you are not currently working on a game, imagine scenarios:
From the start music, you can either go to level 2 or die (your segments and transitions will need to be able to play seamlessly no matter the direction), the music on level 2 will be different, then you can go to level 3 or die, same principle. Then on top of this you could have music stingers for if the player picks up something, or if an enemy is approaching. You could have a ‘stress’ or ‘combat’ layer that would blend with or replace the original music. There are plenty of possibilities which can get more and more complex. It is a good exercise to go through the entire process, even with a hypothetical game.
You could also start from an existing game, analyse it, find the patterns and game parameters and re-do some music for it. Test it out in Wwise. Then it’s all about thinking outside the box, being creative and imagining ways to implement audio in a unique and original way.
Essential reads to learn sound design techniques
The Sound Effects Bible – Ric Viers
The Foley Grail – Vanessa Theme Ament
Getting into the industry and networking
Getting into the industry is the hard part. There are many talented people, for very few positions. This means that on top of your own skills, you’ll need to be very proactive in your hunt for projects. Work with cinema and game students in order to create a portfolio. Re-design sound over gameplay videos and cinematics. Look for Kickstarter projects and offer your services.
It involves a lot of hard work at first, but getting a decent portfolio is the first step towards a serious career plan.
Online networking is a good way to make yourself aware of the latest industry events, to which you should attend as much as possible, make yourself known and make sure you have something to show when asked. An online portfolio is one efficient way to do this.
In short, networking, practicing your sound design skills by re-designing sound on existing videos, collaborations with students and Kickstarters, being nice and social, and finally being proactive and organised are some of the helpful actions you can take if you want to be a game audio designer.
I hope this is helpful to some of you. Start by reading a lot about it and watch tutorials. Google is your friend. And play games!