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Getting the Most from Your Sound Designer

Working with an external sound designer? This article by audio professional Keith Moore explores the other end of the collaboration -- what can go wrong on a project and why, and how to minimize communication difficulties and reach results that both parties are happy with.

August 7, 2012

12 Min Read

Author: by Keith Moore

It's common knowledge among sound and music professionals that game developers generally don't know what to do with us. We're usually brought in near the end of a project, one of the last elements considered -- this in a medium that has rarely been considered silent.

This differs from filmmaking, where by necessity sound is essential on the first day of shooting and musical ideas are often planned early in the process. For example, composer Trent Reznor sent film director David Fincher music while he was shooting The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But outside of an in-house job, our services for game developers are usually brought in on the last lap. Get the assets recorded -- perfectly -- ASAP, then move on to the next gig.

On the other hand, audio experts don't know how to deal with computer folks, broadly speaking. With filmmakers they likely share a similar passion for other aspects of production: story, directing style, visuals. Though games have similar elements, how many audio pros have a conversational interest for things like Unity, C++, or monetization?

Game sound professionals are creative types who have (hopefully) developed the technical skills of audio implementation, while developers are technical wizards who have fostered the creative and leadership skills that get their projects to completion.

The two face a challenge in communication that's complicated by the subjectivity of creativity. Developers don't understand how hard we work to create a needed one-second sound effect anymore than we understand how hard they work to get a game to even basic functionality. Perhaps that understanding isn't essential, but a lack of recognition for it can create roadblocks that cause time and money to be wasted.

What are some steps each side can take to improve communication and ultimately create more effective game audio? I can't claim to have experienced every possible audio/developer situation, but for this article I want to share a few of my experiences in the indie universe.

What Does a Freeze Ray Sound Like, Anyway?

I worked on a game with a designer in Israel. I was required me to create the sound of a death ray that freezes the character. I whipped up a cool magic sound in my studio... and got rejected. Tried a variation... fail. Tried more ideas... nope. The designer's complaint? None of these assets "sound like a human being frozen."

Huh? "What does a human being frozen sound like?" I asked.

"I don't know, but I'll know when I hear it."

Oh, heck no! I didn't have the time or financial incentive to indefinitely email variations on one sound. I wanted guidance! So I prodded a little further about where to explore and the developer made a request for something organic sounding.

A-ha! No mystical magic-type sound created with synthesizers. Samples, earthy sounds grounded in the real world! I created a mish-mash of outdoor winter sounds (footsteps in snow, skiing, etc.) and the developer was thrilled with the very next sound I created.

What did I learn from this situation?

1. Get more explicit details of what was needed in the sound asset. I know; it should be obvious. But typically I'm given a list of desired sounds, a few general comments, and then everyone crosses their fingers, hoping I nail everything perfect in the first try. In this case, I wrongly assumed the "freeze ray sound" would be something magical sounding. Even if he didn't know what he wanted, we could have discussed possible ideas that got us to the organic concept faster or eliminated my initial magic ideas before I'd invested any time into them.

2. It made me reflect on our contract. I'd simply agreed to provide the specific assets on his list, but there were no limitations on how many variations I would create for him. This is a very tricky subject worthy of another article, as the developer doesn't want to be stuck with sounds they don't want to use, and the sound designer doesn't want to be taken advantage of -- especially if we're working for cheap and under deadlines. But if we'd agreed to, say, no more than two revisions of the same sound before additional pay kicks in, there might have been more concern on both sides to make sure our goals were mutually understood before I went to work.

The End of the Conversation... or the Beginning?

My latest project was contributing sound and music to cutscenes in A Virus Named Tom. After putting in an insane -- though ultimately blissful -- number of hours orchestrating music I was given notes that basically required me to start over. Though disappointed, I've learned this sort of request results in an even better draft that overcomes my favoritism of the first.

I dug into the next draft, and true to form created something I liked even better... and got a request for something more energetic. I tried a different approach, creating three abbreviated sketches of what I thought were energetic cues, hoping one would be worth developing further. I got back a brief response saying that none of the examples grabbed the developer's attention.

Now I was feeling tapped out creatively, dreaming of sending back the cutscene with a soundtrack of white noise and being done with it! I didn't want to burn a bridge, as I sincerely enjoyed working on this game.

Still, between my frustration and knowing there were several other cutscenes to score, I suggested to the developer he might want the other composer in the project for this cue. I felt if I couldn't nail it in all the previous drafts then maybe my mojo wasn't right for it.

I braced for an angry response, perhaps an accusation I was sabotaging his project by playing the Diva Card! But instead he was very cool -- actually a bit confused, as he felt we'd barely gotten started in our musical discussion, where I thought we were at the end of it.

We started talking about previous scenes I'd scored and how I need to achieve similar dark tones -- clarifying what "dark" meant, as we had different interpretations on the definition. He sent me cues from notable games illustrating his points.

A Virus Named Tom

No, I didn't nail the next take perfectly, but the communication energized me. I didn't feel the dreaded burnout of having to create yet another draft that may or may not work. The final draft came together quickly, which ultimately turned out to be the best version that's currently in the game. It was the free exchange of ideas and the open, non-combative manner of our communication that allowed us to maneuver through the roadblock into creating the best audio that served the game.

Lessons learned here?

1. I don't know if this is essential in every case, but asking the developer for audio examples (songs, YouTube, etc.) that represent the mood he wanted really helped me nail down what he was after. Sadly, it has taken me multiple experiences with other leads to make this sink in. Not so much because either us are stubborn; more often they don't want to lock me into ripping someone off, and I want them to think I'm professional enough to handle any challenge they throw at me so they can focus on other things.

Even if they don't want me to rip off anything specific, I can still get an idea of what game music they like. I once went through an insane amount of failed work creating Celtic music for a designer, which I had interpreted as his request. Only when he later sent me a clip from the Pirates of the Caribbean film did I realize he wanted something way more Hollywood and heroic.

2. Developers usually aren't musicians, so there are times you need to clarify terminology when working to understand what they need from your work. I've had folks talk about "chords" when they meant "melodies" -- those things you can whistle. They ask for something dramatic and my delivered music is "too sad". But sad is dramatic, no? The burden of understanding what the dev team wants is usually going to be on the contracted audio expert. Ask questions!

3. Composers working on games need to make clear what sort of work is involved in creating music for a client. The developer of A Virus Named Tom didn't know the many hours I spent writing and orchestrating different mockups to the same scene. Given all the plates he was spinning, I totally understand that he had no reason to.

I should have spoken up at rejection of the first draft and asked what sort of instrumentation (i.e. sounds) should be heard in the music. Violins? Techno beats? In one instance I spent time developing electronic grooves to complement what the other composer was doing, realizing later that I was really expected to handle the more vintage, orchestral-themed music. I went down the wrong path!

Communication Breakdown

How about an example of failed communication in a project? I did a bunch of music for a startup's mobile game. They liked it enough to offer me the sound design gig as well. I started working on a batch of effects when they informed me they needed all the sound done in two weeks. This was above and beyond what one guy can accomplish alone, given the scope of the project, a convoy of assets that would likely need multiple drafts.

They asked if I knew other sound designers to join the team, and I offered up a few names I felt confident recommending. A few days later I'm told, "We're going to stop working on sound after this batch... we need to spend money on art."

Six months later the game is released with none of my music or sound. I was baffled. These guys paid me very well for both the music and the sounds delivered. I happily discussed variations and offered revisions without hesitation.

But for reasons beyond explanation (and without the opportunity to make it right) they wasted a quality chunk of time and money spinning their wheels and fired me from the project without expressing any sort of dissatisfaction with my work. Or perhaps they simply decided all the audio needed to go in a new direction. It likely ended up being an expensive decision for a small startup I suspect was working under a tight budget.

My brain spins all sorts of "I should have/I could have" scenarios at setbacks like this. Among them...

1. Seeing that I'm a freelancer dealing with a startup, why didn't I simply take control of the audio and hire other sound designers, basically promoting myself to audio lead? I could have eliminated deadline concerns by taking care it all myself. It would have kept me in the loop (that is, assuming they'd still wanted me there) and possibly prevented me from getting lowballed and squeezed out by the designers I'd recommended. And perhaps the sound designers I'd subcontracted would hire me on a project of their own down the line.

2. The team sent me animations that would accompany all of their sound effects. I thought it was making my job easier (not to mention fun, seeing the visuals with my audio), but now I wonder if it would have been productive talking about the sounds in more detail and getting instructions in writing. Though we had a few quick discussions on the sounds and they sent me a YouTube clip of a game with audio in a style they liked, both were quite general for all the unique assets they needed. More talk about asset complexity, how each one reflects the character personalities, and more reference examples would have been helpful. These things that would have helped me better focus on the appropriate sounds to accompany those animations.

3. Whenever something uncomfortable like this happens, you can't help wondering about the contracts involved. I gave this developer a contract stating all created sounds would be their property, but seeing how they didn't use any of them, I would have loved to find them a home elsewhere, be it a sound library or another game. This one could merit a separate article as well, and perhaps more experienced sound designers all ready have this worked out in their own agreements, but I'm pondering a clause stating unused sounds revert back my ownership, though I'm unsure about it.

When Dealing with a Sound Designer, What Should You Do?

I've talked to many game professionals who express similar communication issues dealing with composers. They deliver one draft of music or sound, take it or leave it, refusing to do revisions, even though the submission is totally against what was requested. Or perhaps they hire a composer to create a reggae track not realizing this artist lives and dies by orchestral music, causing each side to go crazy when track after track isn't working. I've learned expectations need to be outlined before contracts are signed. Questions need to be asked, such as:

  • What sound assets do you need? This should be a complete list.

  • What kind of music is needed? Is the composer experienced in creating that style?

  • How many variations will be allowed before additional payment is required? If audio requirements are well-detailed and the sound artist properly vetted, this number should be small.

  • How many music cues? How long is each cue?

  • How much of your game's budget is dedicated to audio? In other words, how much of the budget comprises your fee?

  • How much time will the sound designer have (taking revisions into account) to deliver this audio?

The more these questions are discussed the better and more efficient the results will be. It might even disqualify the composer from the gig, which is for the best if it avoids unrealistic expectations on either side. I've lost gigs explaining to indie developers three minutes of epic orchestral music created in my home studio is far too much work for $100, yet my rate is far cheaper than hiring a full orchestra for tens of thousands of dollars!

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