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Jumpstarting Your Creativity

Experienced sound designer Brad Meyer (DJ Hero) espouses a creative philosophy of taking a step back and making common sense decisions as the best method for reinvigorating that elusive creative spark once it's fled.

Rev Dr Bradley Meyer, Blogger

February 3, 2010

14 Min Read

[Experienced sound designer Brad Meyer (DJ Hero) espouses a creative philosophy of taking a step back and making common sense decisions as the best method for reinvigorating that elusive creative spark once it's fled.]

As industry veterans, many of us grow stagnant in critically analyzing and adapting the way we design. We've been doing things a certain way for a long time, and when faced with tight deadlines we often don't take the time to evaluate the way we work and assess whether it is still serving us. I have felt this stagnation a few times throughout my career, and I consider it to be the designer's equivalent of writer's block.

"Designer's block" may be as simple as drawing a blank on how to approach designing a difficult sound, but it can also be a more fundamental problem such as falling back on stale, tired tactics just because "that's what I've always done." There are many causes of designer's block: extended crunches, poor design direction, a loss of inspiration, etc.

Fortunately there are several simple exercises we can do to reinvigorate our minds and get our design practices back on track. The fundamental ideas discussed here are not revolutionary; they're common sense, which is often the first thing that flies out the window during game development.

While this is specifically directed at sound designers, most of the exercises and concepts easily apply to other design disciplines in any industry. When you hit a wall, or if you are just starting out in the industry, these four simple rules can help save the day.

Lesson 1: Listen

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen." - Ernest Hemingway

Most people assume that because we are in the audio industry, we must have good ears. What they don't realize is that critical listening is more of an exercise in using your brain than just having good ears.

The ear captures vibrations (sound) and conveys information about the sound, such as spatial positioning, to the brain. But it is the brain that processes the incoming vibrations into what we perceive as sound and gives meaning and definition to what we hear. The ear and brain work together to filter sounds so that we only hear what may be most important (or most prevalent) at any given time.

As an exercise, make a quick note of the sounds around you: mouse clicks, occasional traffic outside, muffled music from the headphones of the guy in the cubicle next to you. Now stop and listen again focusing intently on every nuance of the sounds you hear.

Perhaps now you've noticed the hum of the air conditioner, the whining fan of your dev kit, the occasional seek on your hard drive, footsteps in the hallway and a muffled conversation down the hall as well. No matter how sensitive your ears are, your brain constantly works to emphasize and deemphasize sounds based on their frequency, amplitude, and pitch.

Furthermore, as we focus ourselves more on a task, whether it's typing on a computer, playing a game, or raking leaves, our brain adjusts to what we hear. We can partially override our brain's penchant to filter sounds out by focusing on the sonic qualities of our location. This is an invaluable skill for a sound designer; one which most of us learn early on, but sometimes we forget how valuable this skill is.

If you find yourself mired in a bad case of designer's block, listening is a useful tactic to get yourself unstuck. If you are working on a real world game environment, go take a walk. Listen to environments similar to those in your game to hear how they manifest in the "real world." When approaching the design of various actions in your game, think about their real world equivalent and compare how they really sound versus how you want them to sound.

For example, before adding footsteps, walk on a variety of surfaces and listen not only to the differences between them, but identify the subtle details of each like the intermittent creak of wood, the heavy feedback reverberations of a heavy metal grate, or the inadvertent occasional scuffle step. Listen how different elements you hear define that environment as they apply to your project, and then construct a method for integrating those design elements into your game.

One of the most popular methods to revitalize your design is to listen to other games or other forms of media. As a designer, this research is critical. Sit down and listen to other games, preferably in an environment where you can listen at a good volume without too much external noise. As you listen, there are many aspects of the sound design to consider:

  • What is the mood of the game and how does the audio augment or detract from it?

  • What elements in the game have the designers chosen to sonify or to ignore?

  • How well do the various audio components of the game mesh with each other and with the game as a whole?

If you hear a sound you really like, spend some time with it. Listen critically, trying to dissect the sound into its individual components. As an exercise, I sometimes try to recreate the sound myself -- not to steal it, but as a way to inspire myself and generate my own ideas through the inspiration of someone else's design. This practice often points me to new techniques and ideas in my own design methodology.

Another thing to consider when listening to other games and media is to ask yourself what you would have done differently.

  • Is the mix right?

  • Do physics objects behave appropriately on the sound side?

  • Are movement sounds believable, too subtle, or overbearing?

  • Do the enemy and ambient sounds help convey the overall emotion of the game?

  • How would the feel of the game be affected if subtle audio cues were used to inform the player of on-screen actions?

These exercises serve the important role of keeping your brain analytically limber so you can quickly and accurately assess the same issues in your game during production and into the final mix.

Very few games have near-perfect audio, and even games that are amazing can be critiqued. Given the power of hindsight and limitless time, the audio in any project can no doubt be improved. Listening critically and evaluating a game or movie's sounds can help give you ideas for your own needs.

Often we relegate our listening to games and movies within the same genre or period, but I suggest evaluating all pertinent media. If you're working on a space action game, listen to a sports game, and you will likely be surprised that there are ideas to be mined. When working on a real time strategy title, check out some first person shooters. There are sonic elements in every game which we may not be thinking about, yet can be co-opted, refined and applied to make our design stronger.

Lesson 2: Review Your Work

"Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions." - Oliver Wendell Holmes

Sometimes the best way to invigorate our design processes is by taking a step back into the past. Every project is a learning experience, and each game brings with it its own set of challenges, ideas, and a unique design aesthetic.

When I first started as a sound designer I was in awe. I could not believe people got paid to make sound for a living, let alone that I was now one of them. I took enormous pride in my work (and still do), and had the facilities available to me to capture and record much of my own sound. It was a time of experimentation and a lot of fun. Many of my ideas worked great, and some failed miserably. But I learned a great deal in those first few years about experimenting with the recording and manipulation of sounds to create appropriate effects.

A few years later, when I hit my first bout of designer's block, I began thinking back to those early days and remembered how excited I was and how much I enjoyed the pure creation of sounds. Reflecting back made me realize that in the current situation I had become so mired in unrealistic deadlines that I was no longer thinking like the creative designer I once was.

My work situation was a little less private (sound designers with headphones in cubicles!) and I became resigned more often to using our effects library and just tweaking those sounds, rather than creating my own custom sounds.

I made a concerted effort to start doing what I had always loved doing -- creating my own sounds whenever possible, which in turn made my design sound fresher and more original. I began taking the knowledge I had acquired over the past several years and reintegrated the wild creativity and fun that I started out with to form a much stronger base for my design methods.

About a year later, I began using various modes of synthesis to augment my sound design. During another stagnant-feeling period of my career, I went back and listened to those sounds. I recognized how some of the synthetic textures made the sounds stand out and gave them their own voice, while making them fit into the respective game world better.

So on my next project, I reinstituted this aspect of my old aesthetic, using new knowledge I had learned about synthesis and making the most of the new tools I had acquired. The result, again, was a stronger design in part due to reviewing past work.

In looking at our old projects, we can borrow our own best ideas, concepts, tricks and lessons learned from these past experiences and evolve our current methodologies by incorporating the best parts of what we used to do with the positive aspects of what we have learned since.

The point is that in all of our past work, there is an abundance of content that can help us in many different ways.

Lesson 3: Simplify

"Simple design, intense content." - Edward Tufte

When in doubt, simplify. This is perhaps the golden rule of sound design. Occasionally, I have been guilty of designing overly complex, layered, and busy sound effects.

At one point I was working on an action game and was very unhappy with my design aesthetic as a result of piling too much into every sound.

To get a different perspective, I listened to Rainbow Six 3 and SSX 3, and while they were both quite different from the game I was working on, what I was immediately impressed with in both of these titles was how clean, detailed and sparse the soundscape was.

By "sparse", I don't mean anything was lacking, but merely there was nothing unnecessary in the audio design of the games that should not have been there.

On almost every project, sound designers often have to struggle just to get enough resources and time to get their work done before the game is shipped off to the plant with audio missing from half the cutscenes.

Designing your sound to overpower the gameplay experience is not a good way to get your sound noticed. When in doubt, it is always best to strip away anything that is extraneous until you are left with a clean, meaningful design.

One of the biggest problems with many games -- especially high-intensity action games -- is that too much ends up happening on screen at once. While instance limiting and sound prioritization on the engine side can alleviate much of the cacophony, there is also a design element to determine where sound should be applied in a game and where there should be space left to allow the existing sounds enough room to behave appropriately in accordance with the game and audio direction.

One helpful exercise is to take your mix and begin muting some sounds to hear how this affects the feel and sound of the game. Often we inadvertently layer up sounds unknowingly and unnecessarily

For example, a character's punch may have some clothing and gear movement, a whoosh sound and an effect sound tied to a visual trail. If these are all designed separately we may not even realize they are all there until mixing the game. Sound design can often sparkle when we remove some of these elements in order to let others shine through.

People often say the best sounding games are the ones where you don't notice the sound at all, and it takes a well-balanced, well-planned, detailed design to accomplish that. Granted much of the best sound design is wildly complex, and some of the best sounds are made from dozens of layers of different elements.

I am not advocating anything silly, like a "one resource per sound effect" rule; I am merely suggesting that stripping your sound down to the core elements, whether it's four or 40, will go a long way to improving your design and the overall game playing experience.

Lesson 4: Collaborate

"I not only use all the brains I have, but all I can borrow." - Herbert Hoover

The fourth way to jumpstart your creative juices is to use your mouth instead of your ears and talk with other people. There are myriad ways to discuss your ideas these days, from social networks to message boards, and there is always much to be learned from discussing ideas with co-workers, friends and colleagues.

The best ideas are often collaborative, and bouncing an idea off someone or getting their opinion about a sound you are designing or a problem you are having can spell the difference between good sound design and great sound design.

Years ago I worked for Konami in Hawaii and was fortunate to work with an outstanding audio team. We worked in an open, collaborative manner, and if one of us got stuck on a sound, we'd just ask each other, "Hey, what do you think Frogger's tongue would sound like if it punched someone in the face?" and we'd get some creative replies like, "Maybe try a good wet face smack, with a party favor razz, a tight fart, and some wet paper towels hitting the floor."

Suggestions like these inspired us to try new concepts for our sounds, and also solidified our work as a team. At Shaba Games I had a similar, cooperative environment. Not only was the sound design of our games strengthened as a result of these collaborative studios, but the individual sound designers developed their skills much more effectively than working solo.

If you work alone and no one around understands what you do, there are numerous organizations of game audio professionals from G.A.N.G. to IASIG to the numerous audio related groups on LinkedIn and Yahoo.

These organizations are full of people just like you and me: excited, inspired audio professionals with brains full of ideas and years of experience. In spite of the competition among companies in our industry, the key to advancing our skills and our medium collectively is through collaboration and discussion.

No one thinks about audio the way a sound designer does and brainstorming with your colleagues can foster new design ideas for yourself and throughout the community. A colleague of mine recently told me a tale of a veteran sound designer explaining to him that when a sound designer enters the industry, he immediately "learns everything" and the concepts he comes in with are those which he will rely on throughout his career.

He and I disagreed with this sentiment and concurred that like any other discipline, sound design is a continually evolving field and the tasks of learning, reinventing, and discovering should never end. Embrace these four principles and you can reinvigorate the discovery and evolution of your personal design aesthetics. Being consistently creative every day of your career is an imposing challenge and sometimes when you need to be creative, and the inspiration is not coming, just take a moment and:

  • Listen

  • Review

  • Simplify

  • Collaborate

[Photos by Linda Kinney, dionhinchcliffe and Ville Säävuori, used under Creative Commons license.]

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About the Author(s)

Rev Dr Bradley Meyer


Rev. Dr. Brad Meyer is Audio Director at Free Range Games. Previously, he was Audio Director at Shaba Games. Brad has a keen interest in data-driven, reactive audio systems, as well as sharing the pitfalls and successes of his career with others. For more information please see www.bradleymeyer.com.

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