Company (or Freelance):
Sound Designer at Zynga
The school is a technical/vocational college for everything Audio Engineering. It’s a one year, fast paced program where we covered everything from studio recording, live sound, post production, game audio, music business, and much more. I also attended Penn State University for awhile, pursuing a Kinesiology major (exercise science), but ultimately that pursuit was something I was doing for my family rather than myself. I dropped out in good grade standings after two years to pursue what I always wanted to do: work in games. Lesson is, traditional Universities aren’t for everyone, and not always what they are cracked up to be. Choose your school carefully, but most importantly follow your heart.
What inspired you to work with sound?
I just always really loved video games. They were like these fantastic adventures and stories I got to experience that rivaled the best books and movies. Most of all though, I especially took a liking to game music. I started playing video games when I was 5 years old, and video game music was just something that really hit a sweet spot with me. I remember when I was young, little kids were singing Sesame Street and Barney music, but I went around humming Sonic and Mario songs.
I’ve just always felt that game audio was so good at invoking such strong emotions out of the player. I can’t even count the number of times playing a game that the music has been the key component to making me laugh, cry, be happy, or be sad. Take the audio away, and you were left with an empty world, and faceless characters. Audio’s ability to tell stories and create emotion is what made me fall in love with it so much. Music and game audio from my childhood still lives with me unforgettably. I want to be able to give people that same experience.
How old were you when you found out sound is what you wanted to do for a living?
I always wanted to grow up and work with games ever since I was young, but my path to choosing game audio was cloudy. First I wanted to be a game programmer, but I felt I was more creative, so then I wanted to be an artist, and then a designer. When I was younger, I used to write letters to Nintendo of America asking about “What does it take to make video games?” and I was always so happy when I got a heartfelt letter back with great recommendations and advice. However, I still wasn’t quite sure of the exact area I wanted to pursue.
I spent almost all of my teens listening to game audio, writing video game sheet music, performing video game covers, participating at game audio websites, and it wasn’t until I was 18 that I said, “Hey! I want to do sound for games!” Even then, my knowledge of game audio was just about limited to “I just really, REALLY like it,” and I was pretty focused just on the music aspect of it as well. In fact, I attended my college with thoughts of composing music for games, and I never even gave a single thought about making sound effects for games until having a sound design class in my college program. I absolutely fell in love with sound design, and it was then I knew EXACTLY what I wanted to do.
Was a school degree the first thing on your mind, or do everything self-taught?
I considered self teaching myself, but school is really the way to go. In all honesty, with the wealth of information on the internet these days, you can probably teach yourself anything if you really wanted to. However, when you attend school, you’re just not paying for access to knowledge, you are paying to get that knowledge presented to you in an organized, learnable manner. You are paying to be taught by others with years of experience and wisdom that you will not find on the internet. You are paying to get access to the best tools, software, and information available, and all while sharing your interests with other like-minded folk (your classmates/teachers). School is definitely worth it, and I’m a big fan of the technical/vocational colleges that you are seeing pop up more and more.
What is your specialty/preference of the sound fields (sound design, music, recording, audio programming, implementation, etc)? What do you like most about it?
I focus on sound design and implementation, with about equal emphasis on each. When I first started working in the game audio industry, I was more focused on the sound design/asset creation, but I quickly learned that implementation is where a lot of the magic happens. It does have its technical caveats which can be a turn off to the more creative designers, but it is absolutely necessary to learn well, and quite fun once you know the ropes. There’s really nothing quite like doing the work to get your sound in game, and the huge thrill you get when you boot up the game and hear your sound with the event for the first time.
What sound tools did you learn in your school curriculum?
Being at a school for all areas of audio engineering allowed us to get trained in quite a variety of software and hardware. Hardware wise we were schooled in recording consoles, mixers, and a huge collection of microphones and other rack mounted gear. Software training was just as broad, with optional certifications available for lots of audio software. While I was there, I learned Pro Tools, WWISE, Logic Pro, Reason 4, Sound Forge, Soundtrack Pro, Auto-tune and Melodyne, Waves plug-ins, and a variety of other software. The nice thing is that once you learned one DAW or two track editor, using other ones from the different manufacturers was a breeze.
What kind of projects did you have in your classes?
My school was very much about the hands-on approach to learning, so we had quite a lot of projects. We did a ton of studio recording sessions, including one session recording a 25 piece orchestra! Students were responsible for doing a lot of the work, and teachers served as a watchful eye and help on call. One project even had our teacher playing the role of an “arrogant and bossy producer” and our class was solely in charge of an entire drum recording session, with no help whatsoever. If we couldn’t get it set up right, there was no recording session, and the “producer” was not afraid to absolutely rake us out. Some might call that wrong, but it was one of the best classes I ever had, and it was eye opening to the cutthroat recording industry. Fortunately our class did well!
Other projects included film post production sessions, game audio implementation and sound design, surround sound recording, live sound engineering, mixing music, learning to solder and repair audio equipment, field recording outings, writing music business contracts and other legal papers, and so much more. It was a great learning experience.
Were your teachers audio professionals? Anybody the audience would know?
My teachers for the most part were all great at what they did, and some had really impressive backgrounds. Our live sound teacher had toured as the sound guy with some of the biggest rock and pop bands of the 80s, including KISS, Motley Crue, and Madonna. Our studio recording instructors all had impressive credits recording a variety of great artists, with some of them having over 30 years experience. Our music business teachers were like walking encyclopedias, and our trouble shooting teacher was a certified electrician that worked as an SSL recording console technician. I definitely was glad to have these guys as my instructors.
Did you do any side projects during school? If so, what were they like?
There wasn’t much time! There was so much going on with school, it was hard to have any spare time. Towards the end of the program though, I went mega crazy with preparing my resume and demo materials. I spent any free time I had taking video game trailers and creating my own audio track for them from scratch. By the time I was ready to start applying, I had a few game sound design demo videos along with all my other school materials, which definitely helped me catch the attention of employers.
How many of your side projects were published? Any of them turn profitable?
Nope. Mostly all I worked on in school was the above mentioned demo videos for my portfolio. I did work on a flash game right out of school, but it never saw release.
How large was your graduating class? Were you all close?
Classes are originally 48 students, broken down into four groups of 12 each. While the other 36 people are technically in your class, you pretty much go through the ENTIRE program with the same 12 people. It definitely was nice, as everyone got to bond with each other and we all became great friends, but it also introduced those little quirks you might find with co-workers in the workplace, and how to cope with them professionally.
How often do you work with your old classmates today?
Despite my school having game audio classes, you might have only one kid per class who is actually interested in pursuing the industry. Most people went to the school to pursue live sound, studio recording, film audio, broadcast, or other areas. That being said, I don’t work with any of my old classmates anymore, but I am great friends with a lot of them and we stay in touch often!
Any old classmates you want to mention? The more the merrier with the audio community!
Yep. My friend Jeremy Hinskton just got hired to tour with Metallica in the next couple months, and he was running sound for a bunch of MTV live shows before that. Way to go man!
Do you feel more prepared for the sound industry than if you had not graduated from your program?
Oh my god, totally. For one, I was a guy that really knew nothing about audio software/hard ware, recording, microphones, etc before I went to school. As I said earlier, I was always much more focused on music composition in my teens. However, I went through the school program and learned about all this stuff. I mean hey, that’s what school is for. :) It was actually a bit shocking at my first game audio internship out of school (Volition, Inc.) that they were using almost all the same software (and lots of hardware too) that I used at school. I went from being nervous on what to expect in my first game audio gig, to feeling completely at home thanks to the education I got. The game industry is still a lot about being a quick learner and able to adapt, but school really gave me a super concrete foundation to build off of.
Do you have a website for your portfolio? How often do you blog on it?
Yep. www.firebugaudio.com. Making your own professional website/portfolio is definitely a necessity these days, and it’s never too soon to start. As for the blogging bit, it’s been something I’ve really wanted to do for awhile, as I am quite passionate about writing (if you couldn’t tell). During my teens, I did a bunch of video game editorials and reviews for various websites, as well as maintained active blogs. I still think it would be pretty awesome to be a video game/audio journalist, and I’ve been jotting down my blog ideas for awhile now to come back to later. For better or worse, I’ve been pretty tied down with sound design work and life to have the spare time to write, but trust me, I’ve been itching to get writing again so they will be coming soon.
Do you use social networking? How often, and what communities?
I try to as much as possible. Going to game and audio conventions like GDC, PAX, AES, and other similar ones is by far one of the best things you can do for networking. I personally have not been able to go to one yet, (mostly due to being busy working!), and it is a bigger financial commitment, but it’s very high up there on my wish list.
Internet wise, there is really a lot you can do here with networking these days. I am active on Facebook and LinkedIn and stay in regular contact with a lot of people. Twitter has surprisingly become this super networking tool for game professionals, but I personally have not gotten too involved there yet. One of my favorite ways to network is by joining and participating at different video game/game audio forums. Also, it never hurts to just sometimes send out a general interest email to companies, you never know what could become of it.
Any last words for future audio guys looking to carve their education and career paths?
I’ve known people who have broken into the industry in all different ways. Advancing from QA, had great social networking, were a friend of a friend, in the right place at the right time, had a really great portfolio, and sometimes by just getting lucky, there’s lots of ways to get your foot in the door. First off, my advice is to be humble, yet confident in your skills and abilities. Next, be passionate about what you do. That should go without saying, but you would be surprised to learn that some people working in the game industry aren’t even really into it. Be persistent, but not pushy. Network as much as possible, meet people, be active in the game audio community and get your name out there. Last but not least, work hard and build up an impressive portfolio. Try to find projects to work on, or start your own sound projects. Be a freelancer, and pick up miscellaneous audio work whenever you can. You really have got to want this career, and can only try harder when things get tough or seem hopeless. If you can do that, you will succeed.
About Sonic Backgrounds
The sound industry is an ever growing field, ranging from linear sound design in film and TV, to interactive audio in games, and from live theatrical sound design to field recording for the creation of custom libraries. It is only recently however, that school programs have begun to offer degrees in the sound-specific variety. Graduates of these new programs are now coming into the industry, and it provokes the interesting question of how these new, specific programs are preparing individuals for the sound world, as opposed to the older approaches of entry, such as pure passion, musical talent, a film degree, or a computer science degree.
“Sonic Backgrounds” is an interview series focused on interviewing recent graduates of these educational sound programs around the globe, to see what exactly they are providing, and how they are shaping the new “academic”-based sound artist.