MY LIFE AS A SOUND DESIGNER

Pro Sound Effects has started its own How I Work series inspired by Lifehacker’s series (of the same name), featuring interviews with professional sound designers who subscribed to the company’s Hybrid Library.

By Nicole Boyd

So far, four interviews have been conducted for the series, including  Matt Piersall – game sound designer from G133K Works, Austin, Texas; Will Morton – game sound designer from Solid Audioworks, Edinburgh, Scotland; Andrew Lackey – sound designer from Wabi Sabi Soundworks, Atlanta, Georgia and Michael O’Connor – a freelance sound designer from Los Angeles, California.

We take a look at the best bits from all of the interviews, with tips and tricks to inspire you for your next project.

Andrew lackey using his favourite sound design tool: the microphone (image: PSE Blog).

Andrew lackey using his favourite sound design tool: the microphone (image: PSE Blog).

What is one thing you know now you wished you had known 5 years ago?

Matt Piersall:

“I’m con­tent with every­thing I’ve known at the time I’ve know it. Fail­ure, suc­cess, and in general fig­ur­ing stuff out is an impor­tant process in the life of an artist. If there is ONE thing I’d wished that I had fig­ured out ear­lier is that it’s impor­tant to always be con­fi­dent and to not get down on your­self. It simply slows down your life both creatively and personally.”

Will Morton:

 “Just how big the world of audio is when you go free­lance. Being an in-house sound designer work­ing on one series of games for the major­ity of your career means that you get focussed on one prod­uct for a long period of time, often years, before mov­ing onto some­thing else. Becom­ing a free­lancer has been a true time of discovery.”

Michael O’Connor:

I wish I knew the impor­tance of diver­si­fy­ing my clien­tele in order to help earn a liv­ing. After grad­u­at­ing col­lege I began work­ing mainly on inde­pen­dent nar­ra­tive projects since I enjoyed the relaxed dead­lines which enabled me to focus on my cre­ative side and record nearly all of the mate­r­ial I was imple­ment­ing (my first fea­ture film con­sisted entirely of SFX from my own library minus a hand­ful of SFX from other libraries). How­ever, due to lim­ited bud­gets, I worked a ton and could hardly make a living.

As my con­tacts grew I even­tu­ally branched out into the TV and com­mer­cial world (tighter dead­lines w/ higher pay). I realised that strik­ing the bal­ance of com­mer­cial and nar­ra­tive work has enabled me to both com­fort­ably earn a liv­ing and work on projects where I don’t need to rush the cre­ative process.”

Andrew Lackey:

I feel grateful for where I am and to wish to change the past would be a wish to be elsewhere. Also, I love challenges, and things I’m challenged by now will steer me to places 5 years from now that I could not imagine today.”

Michael O'Connor recording sword foley for the short film “Spirit Town” (image: PSE Blog).

Michael O’Connor recording sword foley for the short film “Spirit Town” (image: PSE Blog).

What software/hardware/gadgets can you not live without?

Michael:

Software – “I couldn’t live with­out Sound­miner HD Plus as I will typ­i­cally have 3 hours to lay in 100–200 SFX for the tele­vi­sion work I do. Izo­tope RX is mag­i­cal (our review link).”

Gadgets – The Sennheiser MKH60 + MKH30 micro­phones paired with my Sound Devices Mix­Pre and Rode Blimp enable me to capture industry-standard audio with vir­tu­ally no noise and with con­trol over the stereo width in post. The micro­phones han­dle just about any­thing I throw at them, whether it’s soft wind blow­ing through trees to jumbo jets roar­ing by 100 yards away.  The lim­iters on the Mix­Pre are great at han­dling sud­den loud­ness spikes with­out dis­tort­ing the audio, and the blimp elim­i­nates 99% of the wind I encounter.”

Andrew:

“Micro­phones and some record­ing device. It’s my base­line. When I first started out my men­tor, Dane Davis, had me run­ning all over LA look­ing for crazy stuff to record. Also, my first roles on films with him were as a foley super­vi­sor, edi­tor, mixer. I learned the lan­guage of sound design by mak­ing things hap­pen acousti­cally first.

Now, what 16 years later, I’m still doing the same thing, but I also have my own library I’ve amassed as a bonus. I take a recorder every­where. If some­thing catches my ear…I record it. I liken it to a chef hav­ing their own gar­den or look­ing around in the woods for mush­rooms. You can’t help but cre­ate some­thing unique when you start from scratch.”

Will:

Software – Tone­boost­ers’ Bar­ri­cade Pro lim­iter plu­gin. It is very much used in prac­ti­cally every ses­sion I work on. iZotope’s RX restora­tion suite, I’ve used this for years on many big projects. Whether for restora­tion or not every time I use RX it blows my mind with­out fail. Dia­logue pro­duc­tion is a large part of my work and RX makes things eas­ier and faster. PSE’s Hybrid Library, I had a few libraries I had pur­chased myself over the years but most were very niche prod­ucts, and even on my first project as a free­lancer I found that I needed sounds I didn’t have. The Hybrid Library offered a ridicu­lous amount of sounds cov­er­ing just about any­thing you could need, so it was a fan­tas­tic way of get­ting started as a free­lancer with­out wor­ry­ing about library-building.” 

Gadgets – Cockos’ Reaper DAW, one of the best things about Reaper is that you can go ridicu­lously deep with cus­tomiza­tion and automa­tion of tasks. I have worked on projects where I man­aged more than 150,000 lines of dia­logue, and Reaper made work­ing with that amount of files very straightforward. My own laptop stand. I have a Vaio lap­top which has really poor USB port place­ment, great lap­top, but very poor design. I looked for a stand that would allow me to feed angled USB cables under the stand so I could have the ports tucked away at the back, [so] I designed and built one from wood in a few hours one after­noon. It’s per­fect, and I couldn’t imag­ine using a lap­top with­out it. I wish I had just done this first!”

Matt:

Software – “I really like Mas­chine right now, I make tracks at home for fun. iPhone for Audi­ble and Pod­casts, I lis­ten to a TON of audio books (iPhone is obvi­ous but smart phones in gen­eral are amaz­ing devices).”

Gadgets – Push Con­troller, this is the best con­troller for Able­ton, it’s also helped make my sound design WAY more per­for­mance based and less edit­ing based. Steamer, I finally quit need­ing to iron, steamer is way eas­ier to store and does less dam­age to your clothing.”

Andrew Lackey finding new uses for his windjammer (image: PSE Blog).

Andrew Lackey finding new uses for his windjammer (image: PSE Blog).

What’s your favourite time-saving shortcut/tool?

Will:

“The very def­i­n­i­tion of time-saving to me is the incred­i­bly flex­i­ble batch ren­der­ing func­tion of Reaper.”

Matt:

“I’d say the Drum­Rack in Able­ton has been a huge short­cut. It’s quick, it’s already mapped to Push and you can drop sounds from your library directly in. If you need to record some­thing it’s SUPER quick to get your live record­ing into the Drum Rack. Sequenc­ing my sounds vs. edit­ing has saved me a ton of time and it’s made it very speedy to cre­ate options and revisions.”

Andrew:

Nuendo is a beast of pro­duc­tiv­ity short­cuts.  Log­i­cal edit­ing, insane auto­mated export­ing func­tions, etc.”

Michael:

Izotope’s RX3 Advanced audio restora­tion soft­ware, hands down. RX3 paid for itself within weeks after I pur­chased it by sav­ing me dozens of hours of man­u­ally de-noising and de-clicking trashed pro­duc­tion audio (my wrist hurts just think­ing about the pre-RX3 days).  The spec­tral repair is unbe­liev­ably pre­cise when it comes to clean­ing and repair­ing prob­lem­atic dia­logue.  It’s also great for clean­ing sound effects I’ve recorded in the field (e.g. remove bird chirps from auto­mo­bile recordings).” (review link)

Michael O'Connor recording demolition samples for his personal sound effects library (image: PSE Blog).

Michael O’Connor recording demolition samples for his personal sound effects library (image: PSE Blog).

Where do you find inspi­ra­tion for your sound design work?

Andrew:

“The project itself. Every project starts as an endeavor to do some­thing dif­fer­ent, tell a new story or tell a well known story from a unique per­spec­tive. Even if a project is firmly rooted in a genre…take zom­bies for instance….there is always some­thing that makes it dif­fer­ent. After all, why make it? I feel our jobs as design­ers is to hone in on what that is and help the cre­ative direc­tors give the deep­est expe­ri­ence we can around it.

Once you’ve honed in on WHY you’re mak­ing the sounds…not WHAT sounds to make…but WHY…you start to build a con­text (or an inspi­ra­tion) for every future choice you make for the project. When you know WHY, sud­denly you can focus.  You can con­fi­dently peel away insignif­i­cant sounds, ideas or cliches that are only there because only WHAT was answered prior to your under­stand­ing.  This is an evolv­ing under­stand­ing through­out a project’s life cycle.  In fact, often the film or game mak­ers them­selves haven’t fully fig­ured out all of the WHYs by the time you start.  I feel that’s why they’ve hired me….my abil­ity to explore that with them and use my tal­ents in sound design to make it happen.”

Michael:

“I feel like when I was younger I was mainly inspired by many films, whereas these days my main inspi­ra­tion comes from life expe­ri­ences. I am con­stantly ana­lyz­ing my sense of hear­ing and how I might repli­cate such feel­ings and moments with my sound design work. I believe that in order to explore new realms of sound design, one must find inspi­ra­tion out­side of the medium they contribute to.”

Matt:

“Most inspi­ra­tion is process based. I like chang­ing how/where/when I do things. I try and live life first. Sound design is an amaz­ing career and art form but there are things that are much more impor­tant. Real­iz­ing that in the end we’re just mak­ing video games frees me from being trapped by think­ing my work is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING.

It’s not that you can’t fail. Just fail early and often. Always try things, they might not work but that’s okay. My sound design has become a zen state to me. I don’t think, I just do.”

Will:

“When doing sound for pic­ture, most of the time I can ‘hear’ the fin­ished prod­uct in my head, how some­thing should sound, and then I just recre­ate the sound in my stu­dio. How­ever, for cre­at­ing new sounds just noodling with a synth or going to town on some field record­ings or sam­ples with some bru­tal effects plu­g­ins can trig­ger ideas that are inspir­ing and worth devel­op­ing. You’ve got to get your hands dirty and exper­i­ment. There’s a lot more to sound design than sim­ply cre­at­ing new sounds though!”

WORKSPACES

Michael O'Connor's setup (image: PSE Blog).

Michael O’Connor’s setup (image: PSE Blog).

Michael O’Connor:

Matt Piersall's setup (image: PSE Blog).

Matt Piersall’s setup (image: PSE Blog).

Matt Piersall:

Andrew Lackey's setup (image: PSE Blog).

Andrew Lackey’s setup (image: PSE Blog).

Andrew Lackey:

Will and stu­dio part­ner, Craig Connor testing gear (image: PSE Blog).

Will and stu­dio part­ner, Craig Connor testing gear (image: PSE Blog).

Will Morton:

  • Dual mon­i­tor setup for stereo work which I alter­nate when mix­ing, with a pair of Dynau­dio Airs, which are won­der­ful and a pair of Wharfedale Dia­mond Hi-Fi speak­ers. It’s always bet­ter to check on dif­fer­ent set-ups to get the mix sound­ing pol­ished on con­sumer gear as well as higher-end mon­i­tors.
  • Surround monitoring is based around a set of Tan­noys – I used Tan­noys at col­lege and fell in love.
  • Dual mon­i­tor screens, top screen with video pre­view, mixer con­trols, plu­g­ins, etc. and bot­tom screen with the main Reaper win­dow.
  • 4TB hard drive per­ma­nently con­nected with my sam­ple library and USB hub for don­gles (seems a waste, but is a must).
  • ADR Vocal Booth – Sennheiser MK4 almost per­ma­nently con­nected, it’s just a fan­tas­tic all-rounder for dia­logue record­ing.  A moun­tain of other mics I use for stu­dio and field recording: from clas­sics like the Shure SM58through Rode NTG2 etc., always in even num­bers so I can do stereo mic­ing.
  • For music I’m gen­er­ally more of a ‘step-entry with a qwerty key­board’ type of guy, but hav­ing MIDI con­trollers at hand is always use­ful – after all the only way to cap­ture per­for­mance is to per­form –  M-Audio semi-weighted full size key­board, Nova­tion Launch­pad and an Akai MPK Mini key­board on a slid­ing shelf under my com­puter key­board; Korg Nanokey that I take out and about with a lap­top because it is so slim.
  • Box in the cor­ner hold­ing mic stands when out of use, but ready to grab at a moment’s notice and shelves with boxes and bags of field record­ing gear (blimps, adapters, recorders, bat­ter­ies, cables, mics, backup gear, etc). It’s all packed ready for use so whether it’s a big or small record­ing job I can pretty much pick up what I need and leave the stu­dio with no preparation.

To read the full interviews, head over to the Pro Sound Effects Blog, here.

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