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It's very refreshing to find someone who takes advantage of their own creative forces, ignoring the 'rules' and going with their gut instinct to produce their craft within an industry which often places too much value on credentials. While Darryl has the qualifications, he doesn't fall to them to deliver the goods. In just two short years, Darryl's company has amassed quite a resume' of titles including Madden 98, 99 and 2000, Ultima Online Third Dawn, and Knockout Kings 2002.

Aaron Marks, Blogger

May 15, 2001

28 Min Read

The driving force behind Chicago-based GameBeat, Inc. is a man with firm goals and the tenacity to achieve them. Darryl Duncan, along with fellow teammates Tarrance Kramer (Senior Sound Designer/Composer), Albert Morales (Sound Designer, Mix Engineer, field-recording technician), Vincent Nerey (VP of marketing & promotions) and Lesley Adams (VP of Operations, Office Manager, Human Resources Director) operate a highly successful audio production house bent on gaming industry domination. In just two short years, Darryl's company has amassed quite a resumé of titles to include: John Madden Football 98, 99 and 2000; NCAA Football 98 and 99; Die Hard Trilogy 2; Ultima Online Third Dawn, Knockout Kings 2002, Microsoft's Zoo Tycoon and Blue's Clues Big Music Show among their 17 major game projects. Another sizeable game project recently presented itself proving the strong foothold GameBeat has on the industry.

What stood out most for me when doing this interview was how a man with formal musical training does his best to stay away from it. It's very refreshing to find someone who takes advantage of their own creative forces, ignoring the 'rules' and going with their gut instinct to produce their craft within an industry which often places too much value on credentials. While Darryl has the qualifications, he doesn't fall to them to deliver the goods. His instincts for what works has led him on an incredible journey and will continue to propel him and his team well into the next decade. Read on and you'll see what I mean.

Let's start at the beginning, Darryl, where did you get your start doing music and sound design?

My musical background goes back a ways. I was a self-taught organ player as a child and entertained family and friends from time to time. In the late 70s I played in local bands in high school. After graduation, I attended the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago where I studied Jazz Piano and Electronic Music. My sound effects background is less formal and was developed later in my career. It wasn't until I got into the video game industry that I began to consider myself a serious sound designer also. But I quickly taught myself the ins and outs of sound design and location recording. After taking on the role of lead sound designer for Madden Football 98, I knew what was needed to create audio for video games even though there was much more for me to learn.

Game Beat's Darryl Duncan

 

So then, what brought you to the gaming industry?

The primary driving force behind getting into the gaming industry was fairly simple. After several years in the mainstream music industry, I didn't particularly want to depend on a hit record to feed my family. I felt the game industry was a bit more secure in terms of being able to make music and a decent living doing it. So, in 1993, I pursued a position at a major game developer. I created a demo reel with my music and sound effects abilities and within four months I had three job offers. One offer was in San Francisco to work for Living Books, the second was Terra Glyph Interactive in the Chicago area and the third offer was to start an audio department at EA Florida to work on the popular John Madden Football franchise. Being a huge Madden fan and the fact that the position was in sunny Orlando, Florida, the choice was pretty simple, so off I went.

Where did your gaming career go from there?

I worked for Electronic Arts for 3 years. I was responsible for the audio in the John Madden franchise developed in Florida. It was a pleasure working on such a high profile title, but I knew I wanted to do more—much more. I decided it was time to take a chance. I promised to complete my commitments on Madden 99 and resigned from EA. Interestingly enough, once I resigned from the company, EA then became one of my biggest clients and I immediately began work on Madden 2000. In the span of about two months I went from EA employee to EA contractor. This was definitely a blessing being a startup company because we immediately had operating capital. The challenge then became getting in new clients and continuing to build and grow. Fortunately, we were asked to work on another EA title: scoring the music and sound effects to the cinematics in March Maddess 99. We continued to pound the pavement for projects. We then signed on to do the cinematic scoring and sound effects for Die Hard Trilogy 2. These projects, along with smaller ones along the way, kept us busy for the first few months and gave us a foothold in the industry as a video game audio content provider.

Tell me about your company, Game Beat.

Game Beat is a full service audio content provider for the electronic entertainment industry. We also service the advertising, marketing and Internet industries. We are just over two years old and currently have five full-time employees.

Is there a particular way of doing business which contributes to your success?

Our general philosophy is pretty simple, and that is to simply 'wow' our clients. We always try to give our clients what they ask for and much more, and we always deliver our assets in a highly professional manner, on-time! Aside from delivering good work we feel that our package and delivery method must give attention to detail. We find that it truly is the little things the clients appreciate. A small example of that is this: when we deliver music or sound effects, we create a detailed Excel spread sheet that allows the client to listen to all of the delivered assets right from this Excel document. They simply click on the music or sound effect title and they play right from within that document, as they read a detailed description of the version they are hearing and what it is meant for in the game. We have found this is one of the simple things that our clients really appreciate and has even led to other projects as a result of word-of-mouth about this service feature we offer.

How do you view the competitive landscape for game audio?

Hmmm, good question. Well, there are dozens of companies and individuals out there that do what we do and I don't think any one company stands out as our competition. I will say this: at the risk of sounding cocky, once a client uses our services, they are often the first to say, "Game Beat, has no competition," and we are very proud of that. We know we may not be the best out there, but we do believe we are "one of the best". The testimonials on our web site are proof of that.

Many developers seem to get stuck in their ways and are determined to use that one guy who has been handling their audio for years, and that's cool: why fix something that's not broken? But what these companies are depriving themselves of is the versatility of and access to multiple musical minds and diverse audio styles. This industry is much like the music industry when it comes to audio: get a hit and everyone comes after you for your services. But these companies should know there are a lot of skilled individuals out there whose resumés may not be extremely impressive: but they've got what it takes, all right, and sometimes a company needs to take a chance to find that out. I get demos from a lot of aspiring sound designers/composers and there is a lot of talent out there, but so many developers are afraid to take a chance on these guys. There was a time when we were that company, now that we've gained some recognition and exposure, we haven't forgotten that there are many who were in our shoes. This is why I take the time to write each and every aspiring sound designer/composer who writes to me and I try to personally direct them as best I can based on my experience. Yes, I know that I may be grooming the next up-start that becomes our competition, but I firmly believe that if you give with a good heart, you will receive with a good heart, so I do what I can to help others.

What's a typical work day for you and the gang?

We usually get started around here at about 9:30 am. We utilize the morning hours to get most of our administrative tasks completed. We try to get all of our calls placed, calls returned, quotes out, documents prepared before noon or 1 pm, then we get started on the creative things. By 2 pm we are usually at our workstations handling the various tasks that have been assigned to us at the beginning of the project. We customarily eat lunch around 2:30 and we try to go together so that we can discuss projects, deadlines, and other issues over lunch. By 4:30 we continue our task and also use that time to bounce ideas off of each other for feedback and constructive criticism. Our day usually ends between 6:30 and 7:00 pm. Of course, if it's crunch time we go well into the midnight hour, but fortunately we don't have to do that often unless a client calls us needing a five-week project done in a week!

What projects do you currently have on your plate?

Recently, we have completed development on several very popular titles, one being the music and sound effects for the new Ultima Online: Third Dawn (recently released) and we created sound effects for a new title for the popular Children's title called Blue's Clues Big Music Show. We've also just wrapped up production on Microsoft's Zoo Tycoon, for which we've provided tons of custom sound effects and music. Lastly, we've provided some cool rap music for Knockout Kings 2002 (in development) and also a Sega Sports title which we cannot divulge at this time. By the time this interview is published, details will probably be posted on our web site. We are currently in negotiations to supply the music and sound effects for another Fantasy/RPG title, but we are not at liberty to give details on this just yet. But these are just our game industry contracts: we also have some interesting projects on the table in the advertising world. Again, as soon as we can share this information it will be mentioned in the news section of our web site.

Do you work strictly with the developers or publishers or both?

We work with both. Our clients have been a mixture of developers and publishers. We try to target our services to the many independent developers who do not have an in-house audio team, since we find they are the clients most in need of our services. We also have clients who do have in-house teams, but are simply swamped with audio work and need to outsource some of it.

What makes for the best type of relationship between the audio folks and the developer/publisher?

A close one. I feel strongly that the relationship between the audio team and the developer should and be as close as the developer is comfortable with. Mis-communication can cost a lot of money on both sides, not to mention strain the business relationship. If everyone remains on the same page throughout the project, it makes for a much stronger product in terms of the audio and, of course, helps to ensure that our audio team will be called again in the future. Clear communications is a must. We've found that this close line of communication has worked very well for us and has made our projects go smoothly from start to finish.

What sort of qualities should developers look for when hiring outside composers and sound designers?

I think developers should do their best to judge just how creative a composer and sound designer is. It's clear that the most trained and skilled composer may be technically perfect when it comes to music composition, but lack a basic element of creativity. I know it sounds impossible, but I do know of a few highly educated musical geniuses who can play any piece of printed music—even write for and conduct a full orchestra—but they'd be pretty lame if you asked them to create something completely original. They really do lack the originality to create the deep and colorful audioscapes that these games often require. This is also true on the flipside: there are several musician/composer types with little or no formal musical training, yet the music that they create is some of the most captivating and intensely creative work I've ever heard. I think a game is done more justice by that type of musician. Not to say that the other can't produce good music, because there are many games that require nothing but that intense technical musical background—especially the large orchestrations and epic scores. So, this is no disrespect to formally trained musicians. I mean, I attended the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago and can honestly say that I do not use a great deal of what I learned there in my work.

Either way, there is something for all types of composers. The developer should do the homework to learn just what creative level an individual might be on. Just like you see a graphic artists rendering of this mythical alien creature that's unlike anything else you've seen, so too must a composer have the vision to create something extremely expressive and unique. That kind of inspiration can come from nowhere but deep inside the composers mind. That's one of the reasons I don't listen to radio or music of any kind. I think it helps me to be 100% original with everything I create based on that project's needs.

When do you find that you are most creative?

I am definitely most creative in my sleep or just before I fall asleep. Why? I don't know, but it seems that most of my inspiration comes when my mind is most relaxed and that always seems to be right before I drift to sleep. On my bedside are my digital recorder, a pen and a pad. That way, ideas can hit me at anytime—I know that if I don't try to capture them right away they could be gone forever. Then when I get to the studio, I'm able to hash out those ideas pretty quickly and sometimes even be mixing in a few hours.

Are there any particular secrets to your creativity?

No, no real secrets—other than that, when I am creating with just my little digital hand held tape recorder (I call it my "Lick Saver") or humming something when I'm driving, it completely disrupts my flow if I hear anything else musical. Strangely, I don't listen to music, the radio or buy records. It is important to me not to be influenced by anything or anyone, not even subconsciously. I like to keep talk radio on in the car when I drive, because if I hear a song on the radio that I like, I have a tendency to hum it for days. It makes it pretty hard to be original and creative when someone else's catchy hook is burned on your brain!

Describe your thought process for scoring.

This is actually one of the most exciting parts of scoring for a video game. Unfortunately, there is often no playable game demo available to us. We usually only get storyboards or graphic files to work with. In John Madden we received pencil sketched storyboards, which was great. On the recent Ultima Online: Third Dawn game we were supplied with 3D renderings of several of the new creatures in the game. Fortunately, this was all we needed to put ourselves in the mindset to create the intense period music for this game. We printed out color versions of the creatures and taped them to the walls of the studio. This, although simple, helped us get into the mood of the music. Tarrance, one of our composers, actually went as far as to cut out each of the creatures and glue them to cardboard backs so that they could stand and he placed them all around his workstation. It looked like a little war was going on right at his desk! But the music reflected this level of immersion and Origin loved what we supplied. So, although we laughed at the time, those things were necessary to place us in the mood. We were fortunate to receive a playable demo of the Microsoft Zoo Tycoon game and this was COOL! We were able to create music that really worked well for the game, but we know that getting a playable demo is a luxury and we should not count on it often.

How does this scoring process usually start for you?

For me the scoring process usually starts with my "Lick Saver." Most of my inspiration comes when I am nowhere near my gear, so I need to be prepared to capture a melody or rhythm that suddenly pops into my head. I get my musical ideas differently than most, I am told. When I write a piece of music, I hear the entire piece in my head fully orchestrated. I hear the melody, strings, drums, synths, guitar, vocals, I hear it all before it ever even exists. So, nine times out of ten it is just a matter of me translating what is in my head. It's pretty weird. Like most people might go around humming their favorite tune they just heard on the radio, this is how I hum things that I didn't even create yet. For me the piece is pretty much 98% composed before I even touch the keyboard.

What equipment do you use for music production?

Well, we have several "Toys to Make The Noise", however, our studios are centered around Digidesign 64 track ProTools Mix Plus Systems. We have 2 identical workstations for our cinematics scoring and music production and a smaller Digi 001 workstation we use primarily for sound effects editing. Each of our larger workstations have a variety of Plug-Ins including the Waves Gold bundle and Wave Mechanics plug-ins for our extreme sound warping needs. We use Event 20/20 monitors for our main and surround sound monitors. This along with literally dozens of synthesizers, sound sources, and outboard gear allow us to create just about any audio environment desired.

Main control room at Game Beat.

 

What about sound effects? What type of gear do you use there?

We try to get as much live sound effects as possible, as opposed to relying solely on libraries. We use a Sony TCD-10 portable DAT recorder with Sony Stereo Mics to capture as much live location elements as possible. Of course, this also has a lot to do with the budget—I mean, it's not like we can fly to South America to capture a rain forest, but we definitely try to do things that can be done in a local field or park. I can often get a lot of what I'm after with what we like to call G/F, "Garage Foley". Often times there are items in the average garage that are the perfect basis for some pretty bizarre and unique creations. Once we get what we're after we mangle, contort and distort the sound effects in ProTools using a variety of plug-ins and then output a number of versions of the specific sound effects. We also use the Kurzweil or our Triton to work with the samples that need to be laid out across the keyboard chromatically.

When it comes to vocal audio, we love to do a lot of that ourselves whenever possible. Some of the creatures we created for Ultima Online actually started out as ramblings from me or my staff and even more surprising is the fact that a few of the animals in Microsoft's Zoo were created by us humans! And nope, we ain't telling which ones! We have some ProTools plug-ins that are absolutely amazing at contorting the human voice in any direction. I actually used my 5-year-old son as one of the creature voices in Ultima Online, ran him thru a few complex plug-ins and the results were horrifying and simply amazing. We used several other tricks for some of those creature effects—but I can't give away trade secrets, now can I?

Explain your thought process for creating sound effects.

Just like for scoring, we get this from as much visual assets the developer can provide. Everything we come up with is dictated by a creatures looks or habits. If he is a seven foot, green, slobbering, drooling, sloth-footed, enforcer type, with an iron-plated uniform on, then once can imagine exactly what this creature would walk like, talk like and smell like. As you can imagine, the artists' renderings do a lot to tell us just how a creature should sound. The trick is making sure that several dozen creatures are all audibly true to their look but don't sound like each other. This is probably the most difficult task.

Do you have a personal sound effects philosophy which guides you?

Well, "over the top" or "realistic" is usually mandated by the developer hiring us and the type of game. Personally I like to go for realism. This was actually one of the issues that arose while I was doing John Madden Football for EA. When I first started with EA doing Madden 98, realism was the goal, but over the next two games the push was for a more "over the top" sounds. So, with Madden 99 and 2000 the goal was to have Madden sound a bit more like NFL Blitz with the exaggerated sound effects. Some games must maintain the realistic approach, but it depends on the desires of the production team. Often, since the visuals in most games are more "over the top" than realistic, it's a good thing if the audio is the same. I mean, even your complete simulation games should have an element of "over the top," because nothing adds to the gaming experience more than completely immersive and even exaggerated audio.

What considerations do you have for creating ambiance?

Our ambient creations are the most complex because we don't like to rely solely on library loops. There are not that many when it comes to ambientscapes, and those that do exist are probably used by many. We approach it with a "layer it" mentality. The fun part is that there is no reference for an ambient effect for a fantasy, sci-fi or RPG game. We don't like to assume the obvious, since most of the places these artist create are completely fictional and artificial—why use the typical outdoor or swamp sound effects? We try to create an ambiance that is as unique as the visual atmosphere created by the artists. So, we do a lot of layering, and again rely heavily on the many useful plug-ins available to us to create very special and one-of-a-kind atmospheres.

What has been your favorite project?

I'd have to say my favorite project was scoring all of the cinematics in Die Hard Trilogy 2. I had complete creative freedom, as I created the music and sound effects for the 22 cinematics of this game. There was a lot of shooting, and cars skids, and pure action so it was fun to get a silent movie and give it audio life! Scoring cinematics is definitely one of our favorite types of projects to do. I also like creating the Tribal, Jungle like music for the Microsoft Zoo project.

What game platforms do you generally develop for?

Well, what we develop for and what we prefer to develop for are two different answers. We develop for all game platforms, but our favorites are the PC and the newer platform systems like the PS2, of course. This is because they are far less restrictive than some of the older platform systems. We consider audio development on the N64 a frustrating ordeal and only consider it on a case-by-case basis. With the dawn of the newer systems, we are confident that the "nightmare" boxes will soon be a thing of the past. Most of our projects thus far have been PSX, PSX2 and PC titles, but that is beginning to change with the X Box and Game Cube stuff around the corner.

Where do you see game music and sound headed in the future?

Clearly we are headed to full bandwidth 16 bit, 44 kHz music and sound effects in games, but this is still just a little ways off yet. I think that full surround sound in games will grow even greater and there will be little or no limitations of sound designers in the coming years. I also predict, that there will be a software package that will allow game developers to put custom, original music in their game—not needing musicians or sound designers at all. A package, similar to Acid, that will allow developers with little or no musical ability to create the audio for their games. Just key in a few parameters, length of music, style, tempo, instrumentation, mood, etc. and boom! the program spits out a license-free piece of music for the game! Now, if someone is reading this and flies with this idea I want my cut!

What impact will the Grammy Awards have on game scores now that they are eligible to win?

Oh, now this is the fun part. We all want to be recognized for our work and there is no better way to recognized a musical work other than a Grammy. I think this is wonderful! Although the technical achievements should get awarded too because often they are amazing in terms of how much interactive audio can be squeezed into 500K of available audio RAM. Anyhow, I think the Grammy is great and I'm sure game composers will be thinking of this as they work on that epic score! I know I will.

Do you have any advice for current and future game composers and sound designers?

I often get demos and inquiries from aspiring game music composers and the mistake that most of them make is that they prepare their demo primarily in the style of music they personally enjoy. I tell them that to attractattention in this industry you need to show extreme versatility in the styles of music you create. I don't know too many developers/publishers that only develop one type of game. One must learn to be proficient and convincing, even in styles that they may not particularly like. It is this versatility that will catch the ears of the decision makers. Also, and as with every industry, be persistent and do not give up even after multiple rejections. Just continue to perfect your skill and you will ultimately get the attention you are after. Lastly—and I tell this to all aspiring composers—knowing how to compose good game music is one thing, but if you want to truly step into this with the potential for a six figure salary, learn programming also. It will greatly increase your worth in this industry and quadruple the amount of opportunities available to you.

Is that such an advantage for the sound guyto know how to program?

Well, from a career standpoint, a "sound designer/composer" who is also a hard-core coder literally doubles his worth in this industry. A composer/sound designer/programmer is considered one of the Holy Grails in the game industry. But this species is created more from programmers who moonlight as musicians more so than musicians who learn how to program. One transformation is probably a lot easier than the other. If I ever had the time, that is one thing that is on my list: to learn one of the top programming languages. But, for now we are content with leaving the coding to the coders and doing what we do as good as it can be done.

What's your involvement programming for games?

None! We are not code guys in any way—although the sound tools that come with the console systems might make someone feel like he's a programmer. We create the content and let the code guys implement it into the games.

What are your other business ventures outside of games?

We have also been involved in the development of audio for the Internet. We recently supplied the sound effects for Kraft Foods new Macaroni and Cheese Children's web site (www.thecheesiest.com) and we are also working with one Chicago's (and the world's) biggest advertising agencies to provide the music to some of their TV and radio ad campaigns in development. Since my background is as a songwriter and lyricist, we feel we would do quite well in the jingle and advertising industry. So far things are going well as we get more involved into that side of the industry.

Do you have any TV or Film aspirations as far as audio is concerned?

Yes, definitely. When I was signed as a staff songwriter in LA for many years I had my work featured in a couple of big movies, like Police Academy 4 and Revenge of the Nerds, but that was simply having my songs placed in the movie—it wasn't scoring the soundtrack. As a company we would like to someday transition into scoring music for feature films. We know this is a long road, but as we continue to grow we feel that the opportunities for this will increase.

What do you do for fun now that your hobbies have become your job?

Well, I would have to say it's still music. I am still a mainstream songwriter/producer and I still work with a lot of artist in the mainstream music industry. I have songs on the latest albums of Jeffrey Osborne, Dawnn Lewis and a couple of soon to be released major album projects. I am also negotiating a first refusal contract deal with a major publisher to listen to my new material, so I'm still in the thick of my songwriting and will always be a songwriter first. When I'm not creating game music or sound effects, I'm writing pop or R&B songs. It's always music for me. But I guess if I had to pick something that relaxes me when I'm not doing music it would have to be the WWF-style wrestling bouts I have with my 5-year-old twin sons.

Contact Darryl Duncan at [email protected]

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Aaron Marks

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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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