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A Sound Bid

Freelance audio pros are often asked, "How much do you charge?" by clients. The answer the client wants requires extracting the necessary information about the project and using standard pricing guidelines to determine your fees.

Aaron Marks, Blogger

January 8, 1999

22 Min Read

Sound artists and music composers (which I collectively call "sound artists") are frequently asked, "How much do you charge?" Often, it's tempting to reply, "How much do you have?" Although we sound artists never actually say it out loud, underneath our happy-go-lucky artistic exterior there's a businessman inside us thinking it. To get an accurate answer to the first question, a game developer must provide the sound artist with some information about the project. With that in hand, a competitive, realistic price can be quoted. On the other hand, sound artists who just throw out price quotes without a good understanding of what kind of job they're bidding on is bad business. It's up to the sound artist to extract from the producer or media buyer the necessary information about the project.

The bottom line is that effective communication between the client (the game developer) and contractor (the sound artist) from the earliest stages can ensure success. Producers who know what information sound artists need can smooth the development process. Likewise, sound artists who use standardized guidelines to determine their fees and who clearly communicate their options for payment usually win bids. In this article, I present information both clients and contractors should understand before diving into an audio project together.

Playing Twenty Questions
Let me start off by showing what it's sometimes like for a sound artist. Here are some actual quotes from inquiries I received in just the past few months:

  • "We are constructing a large multi-player, strategy game and in need of soundtrack help. I can't say much beyond that. What are your prices?"

  • "Take a look at the game on our web page. We are rethinking its sound effects. Please quote us a price and remember that we don't have a money tree - it's more like a money weed."

  • "Can you duplicate sounds? We have copyrighted sound that we need changed slightly, but not much. Let us know a cost."

  • "Can you give me an idea of what the costs of SFX?"

  • "Please send a demo and tell us how much you charge." s

While these questions are well founded, they are vague on details. Each was so nebulous that I had to fire off a barrage of questions to in return. I ask you: "Orchestra or simple MIDI?", "Star Wars-quality sound effects or humble everyday sounds?", "Red Book or .wav files?". As a client searching out a sound artist, the more information you provide at the beginning of the bidding process, the more streamlined the process and the lower your costs will be.

Questions for the Sound Artist to Ask Before Bidding

What does the musician or sound artist need to know before they can produce a competitive bid? Try eliciting details using these questions:

1. What platform is the project intended for?

Game platforms each have their own idiosyncrasies and ways they manage sound. Different equipment may be needed to produce such sounds. The artist may have to rent equipment or hire a subcontractor because of his lack of expertise in a certain area and this all factors into the projected costs. If a sound creator cannot develop for that platform, find out up front or be ready to hire additional help to convert formats.

2. Am I bidding the project or just one song or sound effect?

Composers and sound artists normally charge less for working the entire project than for creating individual music tracks and sounds separately. It makes sense that once the factory is tooled and the "sound palette" is chosen, creating music and effects in the same vein take less setup and production time. There are those times when only a musical piece or a sound effect or two is needed and we have pricing structures for those also. Let us know.

3. How much music is needed? Number of tracks? Lengths? Styles? Format?

Obviously, the more music needed, the more it will cost. A song's length also determines the fee. Because composers normally charge per "finished minute", it only makes sense that a three-minute song would cost more than a one-minute one. To plan production time, composers use their working model to determine the required time. A typical example is four hours to compose from scratch, record tracks and mix down each 30 seconds of music.

Composing and recording several different styles could change the price too. Some composers are capable of many different styles, some only great at one. If you have in mind music of the same genre, have no fear. But if country, jazz, rock and classical are needed for the same project, it may cost a little more. Calling in other musicians to lend their talents costs money and may be written into the bid.

Let the contractor know what format the audio should be delivered in, such as Digital Audio Tape (DAT), CD, cassette tape, and so on. This is necessary to ensure that the composer has the required equipment or would need to rent. For digital files, communicate your desired sample rate in kHz, whether you want 16- or 8-bit audio, and whether the audio should be in stereo or mono.

4. Are sound effects needed? How many? What specific sounds? Recognizable or original creations? Will they accompany actions, and if so, what actions? Are there critical timing points for .avis or character movement? What type of device will be used for playback, and in what format?

If you call upon a sound artist for music and also need sound effects for the project, mention it at the outset, it's probable they are equipped to handle sound effects too. The equipment used in the recording studio and methods used to record sounds are the same for both specialties, the minor difference being the software each use. Asking one contractor to handle both tasks is less expensive in the long run than hiring two, plus it's one less person you have to regularly meet with.

Provide as many details about the sound effects as possible beforehand. It can help the sound creation process considerably. It shows that you, the client, has looked at your audio needs and that you have thoroughly assessed your project requirements. Although the precise sounds may not yet be planned, your ideas about game weapons, the game environment, administrative functions, and so on can be communicated to the sound artist. With this information the sound artist and/or composer can calculate how long their production cycle will be. A general rule-of-thumb is one sound effect requires two hours of creation time.

More sounds will increase a client's cost, of course, but the complexity of the audio can also affect the price. Recognizable sounds found in nature or from man-made sources are relatively easy to create, and many can be found in existing effects libraries. However, even stock audio sounds may need to be manipulated to match up to a character movement or an action, and these sounds often need to have their volume, equalization or length altered. But generally, these sounds are considered elementary.

The sounds that are the most valued are the original, Star Wars-quality, creations. The demand for completely original, highly creative effects is high, and it may therefore cost you more. Finding the right person with the patience, know-how and shared vision may take a little digging to find, but I have yet to meet a sound artist who won't at least give a project like this a shot. We sound artists do, after all, crave a good challenge.

Don't forget to tell your sound designer or composer about the playback device. A while back a company approached me to do some sound effects, and I received a list of effects and format to save them in - pretty straightforward. I proceeded to create some really boffo sounds, smitten with myself that I had pulled off some impossible feat. As it turned out, these sounds would never see a speaker system: they were intended to be burned onto a chip for playback on a T-shirt. So now, as you can imagine, I always ask what the playback device will be. That way I can design sounds specifically for the audio characteristics of the device.

5. Are any narratives needed? Do I need to hire voice talent? Will there be background sounds to accompany narrations? Do I have rewrite authority of scripts?

Narratives fit into the sound recording category. Generally, anyone capable of music recording can also record narration. As with sound effects and music, packaging this task together will normally cost a client less while reducing the number of contractors a client has to deal with. If you already have narratives recorded, the sound artist can usually provide the service of transferring to digital files, maximizing the sound, cutting them to length and adding any additional background or Foley sounds.

If narratives are to be recorded, the contractor will need to know if he will have to provide the voice talent, and to budget accordingly. Many sound artists have access to local talent or use talent agencies to find just the right personality. Auditions are usually free, paying only when the talent has performed the work, which averages between $200-$300 for a day of reading. This is well worth the price for professional voice talent. As a client, a good question to ask your prospective sound creator is if he or she has any experience directing narrative sessions. After dealing with musicians, though, we sound artists are fairly adept at coaxing great performances from practically anyone.

Granting the authority to a sound artist to rewrite a script is a big plus, and it can also be a money saver when the clock is ticking. If this is made clear to a prospective sound artist in the beginning, it will likely reduce the 'fudge factor' that's normally calculated into a bid. I once had voice talent who could not say, "...live to tell their tales". No matter how many times we tried, this tongue twister never came close to resembling English. A quick rewrite got us back on track instantly. Had we been required to track down the producer for permission, it may have taken longer, or worse, the talent may have had to return later, resulting in another day of recording and voice talent fees.

6. What's the timeframe for the project?

If you need it tomorrow, it will cost more. If you need a half-hour of music in a week, it will cost more. The more projects the sound designer or composer has to put on hold and the more sleep deprived the project makes him or her, the more it will cost. But, if the sound artist has sufficient lead time on the project and can schedule around other commitments, standard rates will apply. Rush jobs in any industry can be costly.

7. What delivery method should be used?

The beauty of the Internet is its ability to immediately distribute digital data. Attaching a sound file to e-mail is the method of choice, and it's typically the cheapest. The costs begin to rise as the delivery method changes. If a client requires shipment on removable media (such as floppy discs or CDs), there will be a cost. A DAT master is slightly more. If a client has to have the original two-inch, 24-track tape reel you used to record with, the price jumps up again. Internet, floppy disks and CDs are common, DAT's only slightly less so. Forget about those big, bulky tape reels.

8. Is a speculative demo needed?

It's typical for an established game development company to draw upon many of its musical/sound design resources at once, have them create specific music/sounds for a project according to their guidelines, and then choose the best one. While this is great from the developer's standpoint, it can be a waste of time for the sound creator. Few sound artists would spend a week or two sweating over a speculative demo, investing their time and money, only to find out their work was rejected. Some sound artists compensate for this by charging a token fee to cover the very basic production costs for the speculative project. It is a fair business practice to pay the artist for his or her costs, which are then usually deducted from the full fee after they are hired. Letting the sound artist know ahead of time you require a speculative demo will save a lot of frustration for everyone. But usually a sound artist's suitability can easily be determined from a previously submitted demo reel.

9. What is the production budget?

The production budget can be a touchy subject. If you have numbers in mind for the sound budget, give the musician or sound designer a ballpark estimate. There's no need to divulge privileged information - just give a rough idea. This will tell the sound artist what budget he or she will be expected to stay within and the scope and seriousness of the project. Knowing this will also help the sound creator offer solutions based on the budget and can make payment options more flexible (e.g., payment up front, payment at milestones, a royalty payment structure, and even barter agreements). We sound designers and composers are part of the development team and do not want to doom a project before it even has a chance. Flexible payment options are common with sound professionals.

10. Who will publish the title? What method of distribution will be used?

This question is very reasonable if the possibility of royalty payments surfaces during negotiations. A game which will be self-published by a new, inexperienced developer and distributed by word of mouth does not exactly scream success. On the other hand, a well-established veteran development team backed by a giant publishing company has a better chance. Everything is negotiable and it pays to have all the facts in the beginning to help make the decision.

11. What payment method is used?

If a game developer already has a standard method of payment established, tell the sound artist about it. Ask if it is acceptable. The most typical method of paying for audio services is with cash, in which some is paid up front, some after acceptance of the first pass and the rest upon final approval. If there are other methods, such as royalties on the backside, a salary or hourly wage, be sure to mention them too. Sometimes a sound artist will shoulder some of the risk. He or she may be willing to gamble in order to help keep your production costs down on the front side for a much larger piece of the pie on the backside. Ask the client if he or she is willing to share.

12. Target market?

Who do the game developer expect to buy the game? A classically trained pianist may not have the ability to write music for a game targeted to the teenage male. A heavy metal guitarist may not be exactly right for the 3-to-8 year-old female market. As composers, it is our responsibility to let clients know if we can handle the scope of the job. Make sure that the target market is well understood by all.

With this list of questions in mind, a producer or media buyer at a game development company can easily increase the chances of a trouble-free bidding process by answering as many of the questions as possible.

Advice for Game Developers Seeking Audio Help

Now that I've enumerated questions a sound designer or composer should ask, let's turn things around and examine what a game developer needs to do to ensure a smooth working relationship with the sound artist. Before the project is put out for bid, the media buyer or producer at a game development company should investigate various sound production companies. Game developers who don't know of any qualified sound artists can use web search engines and developer resource websites like Gamasutra, plus others such as:

Once some prospective sound artists are located, request a current demo reel, ask for references and past work examples, and keep them on file. If you've been paying attention, you'll remember this is a bad time to ask their rates. You, the client, need to get your information together first.

Plan as far ahead of the bidding process as possible. Gather any preliminary work such as design documents, artwork, character biographies, storyboards, lists of comparable games on the market, and have them handy to show the sound artist. I always appreciate getting these extra details during the bidding process. It is a very classy gesture, one that will strengthen the relationship immediately. The more I know, the more likely I will get my part right the first time.

After narrowing the field down to a few sound artists, you may wish to ask for a speculative demo to help narrow the field even further. Music created with the project specifications in mind will give the development team a good idea of what audio "life" to give to the project. Be as specific as possible about the style of music you seek, giving examples of works in other games or musical groups which create the right mood. Ideally only one person (typically the producer) should give their input at this point. My favorite request for a spec demo used this description: "...mid tempo with break beats, dark, abstract hip-hop, not too fast or too slow, gritty and industrial but not jarring or abrasive....". It was fairly obvious that the entire development team added their ideas to the cause! It's difficult to please everyone.

Keep the sound artist "in the loop." Details and ideas change fast and furiously during the development of any title, even during the period while the sound artist is waiting to receive a response to his or her bid. Any major specification changes should be immediately forwarded to the prospective audio providers to ensure accuracy on their part. Changes to the target platform, the addition of surround sound, and the decision to use an interactive music score are all important alterations that the sound artist should know about. It's always good to be prompt when either accepting or rejecting a sound artist's work. Don't leave our delicate egos hanging for too long.

How An Audio Quote is Calculated

Computing the operating costs to make a competitive bid is not as simple as the sound artist saying, "Hey, I want to make X dollars an hour!" Initially, we determine whether a project will increase our professional notoriety, whether it is a standard "resume project", or whether it will simply help pay the bills without any of the former benefits. Sound artists next consider what the project will require, and factor those costs into the bid. Finally, fees (the cost of our time and expertise) will be factored in. Sometimes sound artists may break down these fees in the bid, to include the following:

  • Creative fee. This is the charge for actually creating, composing, recording and arranging the music and sound effects. It is based on the time it takes to create a minute of music or a single sound effect and whether or not the work will be licensed for single use or will be bought out. The full buyout option is standard for most games, but sounds or music used on web sites or in Java applications may be licensed for exclusive use for a period of time. The licensing option is often cheaper for clients, but the sound artist then retains the ownership rights and is free to license out the sound again after the contract period has expired.

  • Studio fee. Renting an outside studio can be expensive, especially when a full orchestra or live band is involved. This fee covers that expense. It also covers the costs, maintenance and general operation of the composer's or sound designer's in-house studio. After factoring in equipment payments, insurance, utilities and general maintenance requirements, an hourly rate for the use of these facilities is calculated. These days, however, most audio creators work out of their homes and can keep this cost down.

  • Talent fee. The performances by musicians and voice talent are included in this fee. Some music composers may charge to play instruments on the tracks, others will include their part in the creative fee. Figures will vary based on the caliber of talent requested. Outside talent - especially virtuosos and/or famous players - will increase this price accordingly.

  • Media and material costs. Tapes, floppy disks, recordable CDs, shipping and any other costs incurred while recording and delivering the final product are covered in this fee.

  • Hourly wage. A unique formula calculated using the sound artist's salary requirements, based on the available billing hours for the year, the cost of healthcare and other benefits, vacations, holidays and retirement. Because many sound artists are self employed, this fee is our salary.

  • Kicker. Also known as "fudge factor" or "margin of error", this is an additional fee to cover any unexpected problems or minor adjustments to the project. Because the game development process constantly evolves and frequently there are changes to a game's audio requirements, this fee covers the changes without having to renegotiate the entire project. Reactions by clients to the kicker vary, but the time saved from having to renegotiate a contract is priceless, and it is always more palatable to charge less for a project rather than more. If the project expands far outside what was originally agreed, renegotiations would, of course, be necessary.

Contract Payment Options

At some point during the negotiation process, payment options will be discussed. Here are a few to consider:

  • Salary or hourly wage. By far the easiest scenario involves bringing a sound artist in as part of the development team and pay either a salary or hourly wage as consistent work is produced. This method avoids squabbling or haggling whether or not there are big changes to the game. It also gives the sound artist a sense of project ownership. This situation is best for larger or well-funded developers but totally unrealistic if no development money is available.

  • Payment according to milestones. Given a hard list of required audio content, set milestones and pay upon their completion. The downside is this method forces the client to plan ahead and have exact audio specifications nailed down. The upside is that it motivates the sound artist to meet these goals. (I'm always more focused when I have a deadline to work towards.) Milestones can be set up in practically limitless ways, from a simple "50% payment up front plus the rest upon completion", to a complicated arrangement involving dozens of project steps and corresponding payments along the way.

  • A bonus up front combined with a barter arrangement and small royalties. This option has endless possibilities. By starting with a small "good faith" payment, the client shows commitment to the project and to the sound artist. Because cash may be a problem for some clients, barter arrangements of some type are workable depending on each other's needs and offerings. Trades of computer equipment, or services such as website hosting, website design, graphic design (e.g., for a company logo), and so on can be practical in barter situations. Royalty payments on the backside would round out the final payment for services. This option is great for cash-starved game developers and for the sound artist who is part-time or has other incoming contract payments.

  • Straight royalties. By foregoing payment during the development process, the sound artist should be entitled to a larger portion on the backside. While this is the best-case scenario for a developer, the sound creator assumes a heavy financial risk and it can turn out very poorly for him/her. To compensate for this risk, a generous royalty schedule should be established to pay the content provider once the game is released. Newer composers and sound designers may accept this option as a way to establish themselves, and then move to more cash-up-front deals as they land other jobs. Wise sound artists will if the game has hit potential.

  • Variations of the above options. Be creative!

Is that all?
Once the bids are submitted for a project, keep open the lines of communication between client and contractor. We sound artists appreciate it when game developers inform us about changes to the game between the time bids have been submitted and a contractor is chosen (we might be able to re-bid the project quickly and save you some money).

When you can't decide between two bids, talk to both contractors. I bet that your gut feeling will tell you whom to select for the job. After all, both of you will be working closely together and you should be able to communicate ideas and get along during that process. Make that phone call.

The bid is, without a doubt, my least favorite part of the game development process, but it's inevitable. Knowing and sharing the ingredients of a sound bid (dual meanings intended) will make this experience all the more sweet, set the mood for the project, and establish a cohesive team.

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About the Author(s)

Aaron Marks


Aaron Marks ([email protected]) is a veteran GDC attendee, game composer, sound designer and proprietor of On Your Mark Music Productions. He is also the author of The Complete Guide to Game Audio published by CMP Books.

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