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Sound Designer

Last updated: Apr 26, 2021
Reads: 84,940

Career Overview

Sound Designers create sound effects and immersive audio experiences in the worlds of film/TV, theater, and video games.

Alternate Titles

Audio Designer, Audio Artist, Sound Artist, Creative Sound Designer, Technical Sound Designer

Salary Range

$30K – $100K

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Career Description

Sound Designers work on video games, theater shows, and film/TV productions. Through their work they build immersive environments, creating sound effects, and incorporating music and voice (dialog or song) into their design.

To learn more about the different facets of sound design and how to start a career in the field, we talked to Sound Designers working in several different fields. In this article you’ll hear from:

  • David C. Hughes (Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange)
  • Matt Lange (Ford v. Ferrari, Ready Player One, Blade Runner 2049)
  • Gareth Owen (Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s CINDERELLA, Spring Awakening)
  • Raison Varner (Borderlands 1-3)

What does a Sound Designer do?

Matt Lange (Ford v. Ferrari, Ready Player One, Blade Runner 2049)

At its basic level, a Sound Designer creates and/or arranges different kinds of sounds, most often in some form of media. On the more innocuous side, think of that sound effect when your computer starts up. A Sound Designer made that. On the more exciting side, think about the sounds of the Transformers in those Transformers films or Godzilla’s roar in those recent films as well. Sound Designers [created those effects.]

Somewhat recently, in a funny twist of fate, Sound Designers were hired to recreate car sounds for electric cars because the electric cars were too quiet for people to hear them coming down the road.

Sound Designers both synthesize as well as record all sorts of sounds and manipulate them in hundreds of different ways to create the aural illusion needed for whichever gig they are doing. One of my favorite classic tricks is recording the sound of celery being snapped in half, which has been used for decades as the sound of bones breaking. Psychologically, Sound Designers truly have a lot of influence.

David C. Hughes (Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange)

The term “sound design” has spread out to be used over a variety of disciplines. In theater, there will be a Sound Designer, and that’s an important role. In the musical instrument world, there are people who are called Sound Designers who work with electronics and make new sounds for instruments and for software. But the title has also found its way into film.

The work that I do is as part of a sound crew doing post-production audio for a film. A lot of times, there are things happening in films that don’t necessarily have a real-world parallel. So, part of the task is deciding what a spaceship might sound like or what some alien species might sound like when they talk.

There will be a crew that works on the entire sound job: dialog, music, foley, and more generic sound effects like cars, guns, or doors opening and closing. I’ll often carve out a little part of the project to work on that’s more of the design-related aspects, whether it’s a creature, a spaceship, a weapon, or anything else that needs to be built from scratch with sounds.

On a film sound crew, the jobs are split up into departments, with the Foley Department, the Music Department, Dialog, and Sound Effects. The Sound Designer is often thought of as part of the Sound Effects Department.

The way these jobs are typically done now is by taking from libraries of recordings you already have, libraries that you can either buy or you can go out and record. Say there’s a helicopter in your movie, so you go record a helicopter. A lot of times, what a Sound Designer is tasked with are those things that you can’t simply find a recording of and plug it in. If it needs to be a helicopter eighty years in the future or something, that’s more of a design task.

Gareth Owen (Andrew Lloyd-Webber's CINDERELLA, Spring Awakening)

I do sound design for musical theatre which is just one of the many disciplines of sound design. I spend a lot of my time making music and singing sound good, creating sound effects, and playing with lots of cool gadgets.

Raison Varner (Borderlands 1-3)

In the mornings I go through emails, bug tracking notifications, attend lead meetings if I’m a lead on the project or sometimes I need to just immediately jump into content development.

Issues will come and go during the day; we may get news that makes us reorient the entire department’s priorities. Other times I’m just head down working on a creature, maybe a voice processing chain, or implementing a number of sounds into a boss fight.

Occasionally I’ll spend entire days in meetings, speaking with Composers, developing outsourcing plans and schedules. Some of my favorite days are when I’m head down, working on music and everything is just coming together nicely and no fires popped into existence!

In a low cycle, I’ll have fairly normal 8 hour days at a relaxed pace. In a peak cycle, I’ll have 8 hour high-intensity days for a while and then 9-12 hour high-intensity days for a week or two preceding a major milestone. Depending on the milestone, I’ll sometimes work a couple of Saturdays or a weekend or two in a row. When that happens, though, it usually comes with comp time afterward.

Note that the kind of hours you experience can vary wildly from Developer to Developer though. A lot of this depends on the internal culture at a studio.

Why is sound design important?

Gareth Owen (Andrew Lloyd-Webber's CINDERELLA, Spring Awakening)

The sound design in theatre is critical to the show–without it, the audience would not be able to hear the orchestra or the singing. Also, many of the sound effects are important for telling the story and for putting the audience in the right acoustic place.

Where do Sound Designers work?

Gareth Owen (Andrew Lloyd-Webber's CINDERELLA, Spring Awakening)

I work almost exclusively in theatres, but some Sound Designers work creating sound for games, or for movies.

Salary

How much do Sound Designers earn?

David C. Hughes (Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange)

The union rates for sound editorial work are pretty locked in. This is a union job I’m working on, and I think the Sound Editor rate is $63 an hour. Plus there’s usually some overtime. So those are your union jobs.

It can be all over the place; I work on non-union jobs that pay a rate that’s more like $40 an hour. The pay scale is usually a weekly rate. So you’ll start and they’ll say, “This is a little low-budget drama that’s shot in upstate New York. Can you work for six weeks on it for $3,000 a week?”

The union jobs, on the other hand, are a lot more spelled out. There’ll be protection for you. If they ask you to work on the weekend, there’ll be overtime.

I don’t know anybody that’s just, like, rolling in the dough. But the people I know who work steadily are able to buy a house, have a family, and make $100,000 a year. There’s a huge range. I mean, my income probably went from $30,000 a year when I was starting, to up to $100,000 a year. But that took 5–10 years to get there.

A busy sound post facility will bring on [entry level Sound Designers] because they want to keep bringing new talent in. So you might get a chance to live in northern California, work on film sound, and make $40 an hour as an Assistant; which sounds awesome except that it’s so expensive to live there.

That’s gonna be true in L.A. too where most of this work is. Like, it looks good on paper until you try to live there for a couple of years, and you realize it’s okay, but it’s not the same as if you were making that same money and living in someplace more normal.

So, yeah, the differentiation between getting started and being established was tight for me for the first five years or so.

Matt Lange (Ford v. Ferrari, Ready Player One, Blade Runner 2049)

Like almost all trade jobs, this varies wildly from person to person. There are so many different avenues in sound design, whether you’re working as a freelancer vs. salaried for a studio, what kind of media you’re working within, etc. One person’s entire annual salary could easily be another’s backend quarterly royalty check.

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Career Path

How do you become a Sound Designer?

David C. Hughes (Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange)

I’ve seen people come out to a facility where I’m working, they’re trying to get their foot in the door, and they come with a DVD. Or they send an email and say, “Hey, here’s a link to my Vimeo page,” or whatever. That’s totally valid.

It depends on what kind of jobs your readers might be looking for. If you’re talking to a Director or to a sound facility where you might get a job as an Assistant Designer, I think it’d be great to have your own personal Soundcloud or Vimeo page, or your own little splash page website that you can direct people to and say, “Here are a few examples of my work.”

I’m coming to this from the perspective of somebody who’s been in the very specific niche of sound design for film for the last 20 years. But stepping back, if I were in my 20s, I’m not so sure I would go in and say, “I want to do sound design for film.”

I think this is a really exciting time where there’s so much content being made that’s not going up on movie screens—and really good content. Very soon, I think there’s gonna be an even tighter exploration of the VR/game/film experience. I think that’s where we’re headed as technology continues to develop. It’s still too expensive to shoot a film with VR technology, but I think we’re headed that way.

So, if I was an 18-year-old and thought I might want to get into sound design, there’s just so much right now with VR, and with game audio design, and with all the streaming content the studios like Netflix and Amazon are doing. It really seems like a lot more things are opening up that could make really good jobs and really good career paths.

Matt Lange (Ford v. Ferrari, Ready Player One, Blade Runner 2049)

Like anything, you choose to. You’ll only choose to if you truly love sound, the concept of sound, the science of sound, the emotional response of sound. It’s a truly exciting world where the only real limitation is your imagination. The rest is up to you.

As far as job opportunities go, sound design is everywhere. Some of my earlier sound design gigs were doing little interstitial sounds for indie video games 12 years ago or so; that later evolved into sound design in movie trailers, and sound design-based music in bigger games. Personally, my own music is quite sound design-based, so even when I’m in a Composer kind of role, sound design plays a big part in my compositional process.

Raison Varner (Borderlands 1-3)

By working on independent game projects, film and animation projects, student projects, whatever you can find that is work to picture or interactive mediums. Stay active on projects that give you deadlines and/or structured goals.

Work according to images, movies or scenarios in games so that even while practicing, you’re also training yourself to try and fit a scene or objective. Also keep diversity in mind so make sure some of your projects push you out of your comfort zones regarding music style.

Experience & Skills

What skills do Sound Designers need?

Matt Lange (Ford v. Ferrari, Ready Player One, Blade Runner 2049)

Knowing their way around a DAW. As for which one, it doesn’t really matter these days. Pro Tools is as common as Ableton Live and others when it comes to the creative process of sound design, although it should be acknowledged that in post-production, Pro Tools is still the standard.

Experience with field recording is hugely helpful as well, not to mention exciting, dare I say joyous. Knowing your way around synthesizers and samplers as well is certainly necessary. So much sound design, in general, is a combination of recorded sounds layered with synthesized and processed sounds.

Most important of anything, however, is your creativity. When you’re given the task of creating the sound of an esoteric object that might not have a distinct sound attached to it, that becomes your job to give it a unique sonic identity. Prime example: Quite literally everybody remembers the sounds of R2D2. R2 didn’t arrive with those sounds. Ben Burtt, the Sound Designer on Star Wars created those, which are so expressive that they in turn truly created R2’s identity.

Raison Varner (Borderlands 1-3)

Having a passion and knowledge of video games, of course, comes first. For the Freelancer, that’s about the only game-specific requirement I can think of. Although practicing or learning what’s needed for delivering assets intended for vertical stem arranged music systems is also something a bit unique to games. But in the end, the bottom line is that the quality of your music and your mixing is far more important.

For someone interested in an internal position at a game studio, they absolutely must have experience building games. Running into technical or resource walls during that production process as a student or hobbyist and then finding solutions to get past those walls is basically the same process we go through in an AAA development environment.

Every day spent on a large-scale project is an exercise in creative problem solving, so being able to do that while remaining calm, relaxed and intellectually agile are all qualities that successful long-time veterans have. Ultimately these are the qualities you are trying to demonstrate you have as a new entrant into the field.

Since technical aptitude and artistic skill/quality is assumed, the better you’re able to express and demonstrate these qualities, the easier it will be to surmount the industry’s catch-22 of needing to have already shipped a game to get hired as a Game Developer.

I tried to build my own bridge over that catch-22 by forming teams with other like-minded people and then collaborating on projects. Those efforts are what ended up allowing me to get my foot in the door. Look for local game development communities like IGDA chapters, campuses with game development curriculums, etc. Start making friends and then as a group, start trying to make things. Small things.

This career only really works if it’s what you’d be doing anyway with your time. Without that level of interest, the sometimes chaos and long hours/intensity at the end of milestones may not be worth it long term.

In the end, we’re an entertainment industry and we share similar high stakes, high-stress cycles as other entertainment industries, so it’s your passion and love of the medium that make those cycles worth it.

David C. Hughes (Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange)

For design specific to film: being familiar with the classics of film. A lot of times, Directors will reference other films when they’re talking about what they want and what their ideas are. They might talk about specific sounds in films, or they might just talk about a scene and use it as a frame of reference.

If you really want to be able to work in film for years, it’s important to have a grounding in what’s been done before and what are revered as the touchpoints. In every genre, there are some classics. For war movies, it would probably be Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket. In sci-fi, maybe the first couple of Star Wars movies. Being able to reference that stuff and talk to filmmakers about it is one thing you need.

I don’t think a Sound Designer needs to be a musician by any stretch, but I like to try to think of sound in a similar way to how I think of music. I mean, it’s just organizations of sound, right? So, think about how things affect you and the world around you sonically. A lot of the work I do is taking stuff that happens in the real world and altering things somehow to tell the story better.

What kinds of sounds make you feel lonely? What kinds of sounds make you feel scared? What kinds of sounds make you feel apprehensive like something’s going to happen? If you listen in your day-to-day life, you can sometimes hit an idea that you can use in the film.

[David] Lynch was one of the reasons I got curious about this work. Like, Eraserhead is a hard movie to watch, but I remember every time I would watch bits and pieces of it, the sound treatment was so fascinating to me. It sounded very musical somehow.

I’m working on a film that Marvel’s making right now. It’s very much about spaceships and lasers and crazy monsters. That’s design of sound. But to me, an interesting part of the work is when it’s not so fantastical; when there aren’t spaceships or anything, but you’re still trying to find ways to use sound as a subconscious text for the storyteller, for the Director. Lynch is brilliant with that. You can step back from it and go, “Wait, why am I hearing that in this scene?” He finds those ways to sort of touch a nerve with sound.

So, my long-winded answer is familiarity with film, with the catalog of what’s been done and what’s being done, and being interested in really listening.

Education & Training

What qualifications do you need to be a Sound Designer?

Raison Varner (Borderlands 1-3)

Beyond normal composition and orchestration training, it’s very important to get a solid education in audio engineering and music mixing. I would also stress exploring and developing your craft in areas like electronic music production, guitar-based bands, etc.

It is not uncommon for Contractors to have to handle live recording, session direction, composition, and final mixes for games. That means that it will be important for you to have solid skills in all of those areas and [you] would likely have a very difficult time if you tried to stay within a particular music style, like orchestral scores.

Practical experience at places like recording studios is a huge boon to anyone pursuing music production as a career. Having experience at a studio not only teaches you to think about your compositions and production quality from an engineering perspective, you will also have access to equipment and methods that will help educate you on tools (that are very hard to obtain access to on your own) and a skillset and mindset that will help you create great mixes.

Some studios and/or Publishers will be able to offer you services like mixing and Recording Engineers to handle live recording sessions or small ensembles, but it’s a good assumption that most of the time, you will have to rely on your own skills due to budget or time constraints.

So don’t be afraid to take some time for yourself after college (or ideally during college) with gaining this kind of practical experience. Even in a situation where it may feel like you’re putting your career off, the older you get, the harder it is to be able to get that kind of dedicated time and focus on developing yourself.

Once you become career-oriented, the time will be difficult to find and you’ll accrue enough life and/or financial overhead that it will be nearly impossible to take a break for training. So get in early, stay focused and experiment when the cost of experimentation is low.

David C. Hughes (Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange)

The people I work with seem to come at this work from a lot of different angles. I don’t think there’s necessarily a track. But there are some very good schools. I know that a lot of universities have post-production programs, and there are also programs like Full Sail’s audio production degree in Florida.

So, there are places to go if you’re sure that you want to get into sound for film. There are legit schools and ways to study, which I think would be a really good idea.

I studied music in college. This was back before computers were being made, being used to make and edit sound. This was back in the analog days. To make that leap into the work world, I had to go and work for a facility because you couldn’t just buy that kind of machinery and have it at your house.

But now we’re in a situation where technology has evened out the playing field. Now, with a good laptop and a little bit of money, you can be using the same software as professionals—we use Pro Tools.

Once you’ve figured out what you want to do, try to see what kind of higher education opportunities there might be. But also, get your hands on the tools that people are using. If you read about people doing sound design work and you’re interested in how they did it, you can get your hands on some of those tools and start to familiarize yourself with them.

There’s also a huge aspect to this business that’s just being comfortable with data management and assets, files in general, because, especially since COVID, more people are working remotely and there’s more need to use stuff on the web to move data back and forth. I know that’s not as big a deal for people in their 20s because they’re already very familiar.

Getting familiar with software and going to school to not only learn about the technical stuff but to learn about film is a really good idea. Also, the people that you meet in college, as you get out into the world and get older, will be how you get work in this field.

I don’t mean to say you only get work by sticking with the people you went to college with. Obviously, you don’t have to go to college to do this work. But it’s a good way to start to forge relationships.

For me, this work had a very slow growth curve. I started doing some of this kind of work during college, I was able to get an internship out of college, and then I was able to work for several years as a freelancer—sort of the extra person who would get called in every once in a while.

Finally, after maybe five or six years, I started to get more frequent opportunities. There are definitely ways to go to, say, the game studios that make the big games—companies like Blizzard—and get a job as a Sound Designer.

But most of the work is making connections, talking to people, and finding a project. That’s what all of my work is. I go from project to project. The only way that’s possible is having done the work for a while and gotten to know enough people, and they know people, and they connect you to people.

So, building a network is a huge part of being able to support yourself in this kind of work. And it didn’t come quickly for me. I probably wasn’t doing this work full-time to support myself until I was about 30.

It’s not the easiest career path. I haven’t seen as many opportunities to get out of college and send your resume out and get interviews. It’s more like you get out of college and start trying to meet people who are doing the work so that you can get hired as an Assistant.

One thing I would really recommend is, if you go to film school, to work with a lot of the Directors. Say, “Hey, I’ll do the sound for your short film,” because that’s a good way to get experience. Then some of those Directors, hopefully, their careers will continue to grow, and you can start to forge relationships that way.

Matt Lange (Ford v. Ferrari, Ready Player One, Blade Runner 2049)

While I went to Berklee College of Music myself, truthfully I don’t believe any institutional qualifications are needed. What matters most, like most trade jobs in Hollywood/multimedia, is your skill/experience, your work ethic, and frankly being a pleasant person to work with.

FAQ

What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?

Raison Varner (Borderlands 1-3)

Make sure you’re familiar with games and focus on developing your workflow to be as fast and original as possible.

Is there anything else that you think aspiring Sound Designers should know?

David C. Hughes (Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange)

Be sure it’s something you really want to do because it can be a bit hard to find a path into it as a career. One thing I didn’t bring up is just how important it is to be pleasant to work with.

You have to be able to do the work, but they’ll also be saying, “Okay, this pool of people can do this work. Now, of those people, which one do we want to spend 50 hours a week around?” And that comes down to just being a nice person.

There’s definitely a personality factor to the people who seem to stick on a crew. A lot of times, we’ll refer to it as a crew if it’s a group of six or eight sound people that do a film. Then when we finish, we tend to line up the same group of people to do the next film or another film.

If there are 100 people that can do the work, maybe 50 of them are not gonna be fun to have lunch with every day. So that’s really important. There’s a lot of interpersonal stuff.

What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?

Raison Varner (Borderlands 1-3)

Thinking about networking as a specific activity can sometimes get people focused on the wrong goals. Remember that networking is really just a result of creating good rapport and friendship.

Conversation and building rapport with people is about pleasant interactions and engagement. If you’re worried about how to get your business card in the mix or treat your conversations like stepping stones to networking objectives, it’s going to make it hard to be relatable and personable. Just have enjoyable conversations and try to relate to others in a positive way and people will remember you.

Then successful networking just happens as a result of people having those positive memories. If someone might need your services or may be interested in you as a candidate, and they’re enjoying interacting with you, they’ll ask you for your card/resume and now you’re making them happy instead of trying to convince them that your card means more than the other 25 they got earlier in the day.

Even if they don’t have any opportunities to present to you, they are far more likely to recommend or mention your name to someone who can. And sometimes, that’s far more important.

Sound Designer David C. Hughes
David C. Hughes

David began working at Skywalker Sound in 1996 and has worked on over one hundred feature films in his career at Skywalker. Originally from Texas, David has a degree in music performance and composition from NTSU. At the age of 30, David sold all his belongings and moved to San Francisco after reading that George Lucas had just purchased fifty digital audio workstations. Three months later David started working at Skywalker Sound.

To date, he has received 19 Golden Reel nominations and 3 Golden Reel Awards. He has worked on films by David Fincher, Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford, Ryan Coogler, and Mamoru Oshii, to name just a few. He has been able to continue his lifelong study of film sound under sound design greats such as Ben Burtt, Gary Rydstrom, Randy Thom, Chris Boyes, and many others.

Producer, Composer, and Sound Designer Matt Lange
Matt Lange

Sound subsists in a constant state of transition. In fact, it morphs and multiplies so fast it might be the closest thing we have to evolution incarnate. Matt Lange bends, blends, recombines and reassembles live instrumentation, electronic production, and ethereal vocals into unpredictable and undeniable anthems with the heft of a sonic boom and the intimacy of a nocturnal orchestra. The New York-born and Los Angeles-based multi-platinum Producer, Composer, Songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, DJ, and artist progresses at the speed of sound on his 2020 full-length album Isolated. As life changes, his music does as well.

A dynamic and diverse trip ushered him to this point. Since 2007, Lange has left his mark on music, video games, film, and television. His production discography spans everything from BT’s Grammy® Award-nominated These Hopeful Machines to Thirty Seconds To Mars’s America, which bowed at #2 on the Billboard Top 200 in 2018. Beyond producing projects for Blake Lewis and Tania Zygar, Lange co-produced Glenn Morison’s Juno Award-nominated platinum-certified hit “Goodbye” [feat. Isolove].

Expanding his influence as both a composer and sound designer, his imprint resounds through blockbusters such as Ford v. Ferrari; Ready Player One; and Blade Runner: 2049 in addition to major video games including Counter-Strike Global Offensive; Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege; and Dota II. Not to mention, he delivered official remixes for the likes of The Crystal Method, deadmau5, Above & Beyond, and more.

Beyond performing at some of the biggest festivals in the world, he continues to prolifically build an immersive and innovative solo catalog comprised of several EPs in addition to albums such as Ephemera [2015] and Patchwork [2016]. Most recently, the 2019 EP, Space Between, received widespread critical acclaim. Of the title track, Billboard wrote, “He reaches a new melodic pinnacle with something downright danceable with a strong, infectious foundation.” However, Music Radar put it best, “To call him a triple threat would be to undersell him.”

The state of the world pushed Lange into new creative territory in 2020. As humanity slipped into Lockdown, he retreated inward. For eight weeks straight, he wrote, recorded, and dropped a pair of tracks in seven-day intervals. Plucking titles like “Morbidly Obese,” “Truth Over Facts,” and the starkly bleak “The Children Are Dying Too” right from the headlines, this undertaking siphoned the hysteria of cable news, the fear of a terrified society, and unrivaled loneliness into what would become Isolated. Typically sleeping only four hours per night, he’d chug coffee and create past sunrise with an unparalleled turnaround time. Moments like “But The Loneliness Is Killing Me” reflect his headspace at the time with its icy and distant production and slow drip of clean guitar and organic percussion.

“When the Pandemic hit, Hollywood shut down,” Lange recalls. “Any film work was gone. Live shows were gone. Isolated was how I kept my sanity. I was scared to visit my friends, so I was absolutely and unequivocally by myself. I obsessively channeled everything into this. It was incredibly cathartic though. Creating this concept record kept me going. I’m so relieved and proud of this.”

Isolated arrived October 27th- on the eve of the 2020 election.

Sound Designer Gareth Owen
Gareth Owen

Gareth Owen Sound is an eight-time Tony and Olivier-winning and nominated Sound Designer.

Led by Gareth Owen, our sound can be heard all over the world including on Broadway, in Las Vegas and in London’s West End. Over 30 million people have enjoyed a show with our sound design.

Our shows have won over a hundred awards including major Olivier Awards for Come From Away, Memphis and Merrily We Roll Along and Tony Award nominations for A Little Night Music and End of the Rainbow. Our sound for Come From Away recently won the inaugural What’s on Stage Award and Outer Critics Award. Gareth himself is the proud recipient of the prestigious Sound Engineer of the Year Award at the annual ProSound Awards.

We count the best Associates, Engineers and Operators as part of our team, in London, New York and across the globe.

raison_varner
Raison Varner

Raison Varner is a Senior Sound Designer and Composer at Gearbox Software. Games he has worked on include Borderlands, Borderlands 2, Borderland 3, Prey, Red Faction: Guerilla, Saint’s Row 2, and Aliens: Colonial Marines.

His work as a Composer and Sound Designer has been profiled by Classical MPR and his work as Music Director on Borderlands 3 was profiled by WSHU Public Radio.

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