How To Become a Sound Designer
What Exactly Does a Sound Designer Do?
In his role as an in-house Senior Sound Designer Raison Varner not only designs sound but also composes music for video games. He describes his daily routine, saying, “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!”
On a day-to-day basis, Sound Designers mainly work with their “peers in the audio department, but also work directly with Programmers, Game Designers, Creature Designers, Level Designers, Animators, Production and external Composers.”
Those just getting started in the video game industry often start as an Intern or Junior Sound Designer, before moving into a Sound Designer role. From there, they can advance to a position as a Senior Sound Designer or Audio Director.
For a freelance Sound Designer, advancement could mean the security of steady hours and a steady wage as an in-house Sound Designer. It’s also possible for a Composer, Recording Engineer or Producer to move into a sound design role with the right training.
Education & Training
Sound Designers have extensive educational histories and on-the-job training. Varner recommends that “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 skill set 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.”
What skills do you need to be a Sound Designer?
To be a successful Sound Designer, Varner says “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.”
His insider advice: “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.”
The type of person who’s right for a Sound Designer position is someone who eats, sleeps, and breathes music and sound design. “This career only really works if it’s what you’d be doing anyway with your time,” Varner says. “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.”
If a Sound Designer works in-house, Varner explains, “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.” He adds that schedule demands will be different for Freelance Sound Designers, whose business may ebb and flow more dramatically since they don’t always have a regular schedule.
To get a foot in the door Varner recommends aspiring Sound Designers build their resumes and networks 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.”
How Much Does a Sound Designer make?
In-house Sound Designers receive a regular salary, but Freelance Sound Designers can be paid per project. Those who are just getting started can expect to earn less than those who are more established until they are hired full-time by a Developer or they attract enough freelance clients by building a reputation for quality work.
Unions, Groups & Associations
Varner advises that “for those that may be looking for mod projects or teams to work with, www.ModDB.com has always been a good starting place to find mod projects and potentially teams that may want to collaborate.” This is a good way to start building experience and connections.
- “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.”
- Build experience by finding mod projects and independent teams with which to collaborate.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Make sure you’re familiar with games and focus on developing your workflow to be as fast and original as possible.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“Oh, I don’t know, this seemed pretty complete to me! ”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“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.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Extra Credit: The Beatles or Rolling Stones?
“Beatles for me.”
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.