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It's Never Too Late

I thought I’d share my story of why I decided to become a game audio designer. I hope that any future audio heroes out there will see that no matter where you're starting out, or how long you've been trying, it's never too late to pursue your dreams.

Brandon Bray, Blogger

September 6, 2012

16 Min Read

First off, let me just say that this is my first adventure into the blogosphere.  But it’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, and one of my colleague’s recent posts has inspired me to finally jump into the overwhelmingly vast world of internet jibber jabber.  Seriously, if I get one person who isn’t a family member or a colleague to read this, I will feel vindicated.  I thought I’d share my story of why I decided to become a game audio designer.  The majority of the internet community couldn’t care less about this, I know.  But I always enjoy hearing how my game audio brethren came to be.  And I wish I had heard more of these stories as I was trying to break into the business.  Getting a glimpse of their trials and experiences always encouraged me to keep trekking through this crazy and daunting journey.  So hopefully this will give some of you future audio heroes – especially those on the verge of giving up – that little nudge to keep fighting the good fight.


It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Growing up, all my greatest memories involved music and performance.  Playing the trumpet for eight years, classical vocal training with the Atlanta Boy Choir, jamming on the bass guitar with my brother, and all the plays and musicals I participated in throughout middle school and high school.  But when I got to college, I dropped all of that to pursue an illustrious career in chemical engineering.

Say whaaaaaaaaat?!?!?

That’s right boys and girls.  And here’s the kicker.  Why did I pick chemical engineering?  Well I was pretty good in math and science, so it seemed like the logical choice.  But honestly, it sounded cool to me.  Not the job itself, mind you, just the title.  And it would be a “stable” career.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Random classmate I haven’t talked to in 10 years:  “So Brandon, what are you up to these days?”
Me: “Oh, I’m a Chemical Engineer for (insert company name here).  It’s pretty sweet.”

So the next 6+ years of my life were set into motion by this misguided justification of my career path.  We’re talking 5 semesters of chemistry, 4 semesters of calculus, thermodynamics, statistics, and all the engineering labs where we had to write 20 – 30 page reports for our experiments.  And to top it off, I decided to add a degree in Pulp & Paper Science.  You read that right.  Just let that sink in for a minute…paper.  I’m not going to get into all of my adventures in the world of paper making, or as I like to call it, Mon Papier Enfer (it’s French – Google it).  After graduation, I joined a giant consumer products company, and was challenged with improving the process of manufacturing…

…wait for it…

TOILET PAPER!!    Five years, hundreds of lab hours, 4 semesters of internships, and 30 extra pounds to make paper that people use to wipe their butts.  It wasn’t even a good product.  I won’t name the company, but let’s just say the only thing fluffy about their TP was the little puppy in their commercials.  I had meetings that involved terms like “perineal hygiene” and “fecal” and “waste absorbency.”  Suffice it to say, I was pretty miserable.  Fast forward a year and a half, and my company has a gigantic reduction in force, aka layoffs, and I am one of the fortunate ones who is asked to leave.  There were a lot of good people who lost their jobs that day, so I don’t mean any disrespect towards them by making light of the situation.  But personally, it was one of the best things to ever happen to me.


Waiting For the Light Bulb

So I’m jobless and completely lost as far as what I’m supposed to do with my life.  I’ve graduated college with two degrees – shouldn’t I have all this figured out?  No?  Well then you better get on that big boy.  I decided that I needed to take some time to really determine what I want and what is going to make me happy.  I waited tables while I was in college, so I decided that’s what I would do while I’m “contemplating the ifs.”  Gotta pay the bills, right?  You’ll see a recurring theme here, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  So I work my way up the restaurant underworld, branching out into all the realms of the service industry.

About a year previously, I had picked up some turntables and started learning the fine art of the DJ.  And not these “just-push-play” DJ’s out there now.  I’m talking vinyl, beat-matching, crab scratching, mashups – the whole nine yards.  Why not start getting paid to do this?  I find a local bar that’s looking for a new DJ, and after a couple months I’ve got two nights a week where I get to do nothing but play music I love.  Well, not always music I love.  I swear, if I had one more drunk girl come up to my booth at 1:00AM, mumbling at me “Eer mah gherd, will you plur that ner Britner Spurs trerk,” I would have strangled someone with my headphones.  Anyway, music is now back to being a huge part of my life, and then the light bulb goes off over my head – this is what I want to do for a living.

Well not being a DJ.  I really had no aspirations to be the next Digweed or Oakenfold.  But audio – I want to make audio.  I had no idea if I wanted to do music production, or live sound, or post production, but I knew my days as a jobless paper maker were over.  I spent the next several months researching schools, sending emails, and talking with my family about, well, starting over.  I picked a school, visited the campus, registered, and 3 years after graduating as a chemical engineer, I was headed back to school at the Conservatory of Recording Arts & Sciences in Tempe, AZ.


One Person Can Make a Difference

When you go to school for something in which you are truly interested and are motivated to succeed, school is awesome.  I couldn’t get enough of it; everything from console signal flow and miking techniques, to digital audio and Pro Tools.  Hell, I even liked the music business classes.  The weird thing was how easily I was able to understand all of the technical aspects.  Part of that is just your brain, but the other part was my engineering background.  All those years of mapping out distillation columns and sizing pipes and pumps really helped me understand the inner workings of a console.  So in retrospect, looks like those degrees weren’t absolutely pointless.  But what I absolutely felt a calling for was post production.  Foley recording, ADR, spotting sessions, even word clock and SMPTE – that’s what I wanted to do.  I was going to work in TV and Film.

What’s that you say?  I need to complete an internship to graduate?  Challenge Accepted.

I interviewed with a video game studio in Phoenix, Rainbow Studios.  There are some similarities between game audio and film audio, so I thought this would be a great stepping stone towards my eventual career in Hollywood.  Then things changed.

Not all of you up and comers are going to be fortunate enough to have an amazing mentor like I did.  But at some point down the road, one person is going to come along and make a difference in your professional life.  Whether it’s good or bad, just be sure to recognize it.

I started off doing the normal intern-type stuff: organizing the mic cables, cleaning the storage room, installing acoustic foam in the designers’ offices, etc.  They even utilized my background with Visual Basic and Access to build a sound effects database for them.  After a few months, I had totally forgotten about working in films.  I was utterly captivated by the world of game audio.  Not only do you get to be creative and artistic, but you get to flex the technical side of your brain as well.  But the best part was my boss, Karen Waller.  She let me soak in as much as I wanted.  You want to see how sounds are implemented?  Go for it.  You want to engineer our field recording session?  Go for it.  You want to do the sound design for this game prototype video on your own?  Go for it.  Hell, I even got to do some mocap work.  The guidance, opportunities, and encouragement she gave me made me feel like I could be successful in game audio.  She even helped me put together my first demo reel.  She’s been in my corner ever since, and for that I will always be grateful.

While I was in school and interning, I was waiting tables.  Gotta pay the bills, right?  It was good money and I made some amazing friends.  About six months before school ended, I was promoted to a manager position.  So while I was working 20 – 30 hours a week at Rainbow, I was also working 30 – 40 hours a week managing at the restaurant.  After my internship, I stayed on for another six months at the restaurant until I had finally had enough and decided to make a change.  I didn’t move out to Arizona to be a restaurant manager.  Where to?  I have absolutely no idea.  I shall consult the oracle, aka www.gamedevmap.com.  Denver?  Naw, too cold.  Seatlle?  Meh, too wet.  LA?  Way too crazy.  San Diego?  Now that’s interesting.  Seems to be a decent hub of game studios in northern San Diego county and southern Orange county.  I click on the link for every company on that list.  Nothing.  Not a single one has an open audio designer position.  Screw it.  I’m going to send out my resume and demo to each one of them and hope for the best.  So without a prospect of a new job on the horizon, I head out to sunny San Diego.

Holy crap, what am I thinking?


Every Time I Try to Get Out, They Pull Me Back In

After landing in Encinitas, CA, (north SD county) I hit up some restaurants.  Gotta pay the bills, right?  Wait, haven’t I said that before?  After about a month, I got an interview with Sony.  Yeah, dude.  Things are finally working out for you, right?  How ‘bout no.  The interview was actually an incredible experience, so I’m glad I did it, even if I didn’t get the job.  But hey, if I was able to score an interview this quickly, things have got to be on the right track.  Then it was day after day of bupkis.  Every once in awhile I’d get a rejection email from one of the studios I had sent my resume to (if I heard anything at all from them).  I started to send out my resume to studios in LA.  Next thing I know, its 8 months later, and I’m still just another waiter in paradise.  Then I get a phone call from none other than my old boss, Karen, and she’s got a line for me on a potential job with Incinerator Studios, right here in good ol’ San Diego county!  After a couple phone calls and an interview, I’m now an audio design contractor with a legit game studio.  Huzzah!!  And it’s on a…Nickelodeon…title.  Doesn’t matter.  This is what I want to do and this is the first step to proving to myself that I can do it.  Right off the bat, I’m in FMOD, and I’m working with programmers and designers to start getting the sounds in the game.  In hindsight, this was the perfect job for me to start cutting my sound design teeth.  For you up and comers, don’t expect to start your career at the Volitions or Naughty Dogs of our industry.  You’re going to have to pay your dues somewhere else, but you’ll be a better sound designer for it.  Anyway, I started in April and the game submitted in August.  I had 4 months to get all the sounds in the game – just  me.


Granted, this wasn’t a triple-A title, but that doesn’t make it any less overwhelming.  Needless to say, I got my first taste of what “crunch” is really like.  I stayed with Incinerator through another production cycle, shipping another licensed title.  Big thanks to Todd Masten, Joel Goodman, and Bill Todd for taking a gamble on this up and comer.  I wouldn’t be where I am now without the chance you gave me then.  I learned a lot about production, game design, asset management, and that “other” part of being a game audio designer.  That’s the part that a lot of up and comers don’t realize.  Making sounds is only half the battle.  If you don’t have even the slightest bit of a technical brain, then this might not be the job for you.  Not only do you have to create exciting, original content, but you have to be able to implement it efficiently and properly.  Word to the Wwise (haha, get it? I’m lame): Good implementation can make an okay asset sound great, but bad implementation can turn an awesome asset into crap.  Anyway, after about a year and a half the studio went kaput, and I was back on the street.

Gotta… pay the bills… right…?

No other studios in my area are hiring, so I start working at yet another restaurant.  But this time, it feels even worse.  I had the job in the palm of my hand and now it’s gone.  And I’m slanging food again?  It seems like every time I try to get out, they pull me back in.  Not to mention now, I have to work at two restaurants just to make ends meet.  So in the span of a couple months, I go from the cusp of having my dream job to working 12 hours a day fielding inane questions like, “Is your pasta gluten free?” or, “I know you’re a chop house, but what kind of vegan items do you have?” or my personal favorite, “I know this isn’t on your menu but could you make…?”


You Get Out What You Put In

I spend a few weeks wallowing in my own self pity.  I highly recommend not doing that.  Then I dust myself off, update the resume and website, and start the job search all over again.  This time, it doesn’t matter where the job is, and now that I have some more experience under my belt I’m pretty confident that I’ll find something, somewhere in the country.  LA, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Dallas, Austin, Denver, Seattle, Boston…I don’t care where I end up, I just better not be wearing an apron again.  A few months go by, and there’s just nothing there.  This is when my family starts asking me if this is really something I should continue pursuing.  “You have those two college degrees.  Have you thought about going back to engineering?”  “Don’t you think you’re beating a dead horse?”  “Maybe it’s time to start over.”

I decide to give myself 6 more months.  If I can’t find another audio design job in 6 months, then that’s it, time to move on.  As soon as I made this decision, things just kind of started happening.  I got some really good dialogue going with a game developer recruiting firm.  I found out about a southern California game developer job forum that meets once a week in Orange county.  I started networking like crazy, and I met recruiters from studios all over southern California.  If I’m going down, then I’m going to go down swinging.  Then with about 3 months left on my 6 month time frame, it finally happens.  In the gaggle of online applications I had filled out, one of them happened to be with Volition.  They wanted to do a phone interview with me.  Holy crap, holy crap, holy crap, holy crap, holy crap, holy crap…

What was the interview like?  Let’s save that for another blog.  But I will tell you this.  I started my audio adventure in 2005.  I was hired at Volition in 2010.  That’s five years, boys and girls.  It took the same amount of time I was in college to finally realize my dream.

I’ve been with Volition for two years now, and I couldn’t be happier.  Sometimes I think about what would have happened if I had never gotten laid off, or if I had gotten that job with Sony, or if I hadn’t decided to become a chemical engineer way back when.  Would I be here now?  I’m a firm believer in everything happening for a reason, and I wouldn’t trade any of my past experiences that led me to where I am today.  Well, maybe the part where I had the purple hair, wallet chain, and more man jewelry than Liberace.  So to close this out, I’d like to offer a few of the lessons I learned on my journey to help you up and comers.

  1. Really think about who you want to be and what you want to do with your life.  Don’t commit until you’re sure.  Once you do commit, you get out what you put in.  If your effort is half-assed, the result will be too.

  2. Be open to critique and criticism.  99 times out of 100, the feedback you’re getting is truly meant for your benefit and improvement.  And ask for feedback often, and from as many people as possible.

  3. You’re going to have to pay your dues.  You may have some really, really bad jobs before you get the one you want.  It may only take a couple years, but possibly more.  Accept it.

  4. Leave your ego at home.  An ego is something you earn, and trust me, you haven’t.

  5. Most importantly, you are more than your resume.  There isn’t any model or absolute to which all audio designers are compared.  A resume might open the door, but it’s who you are that determines whether or not you’ll be asked to step through it.   


In the immortal words of Eric Cartman: “Follow your dreams.  You can reach your goals.  I’m living proof.  Beefcake!  BEEFCAAAKEE!!!”


Oh, and Ariel…bologna.

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