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by Aaron Marks
April 20, 2000

This article originally appeared in the
October 1999 issue of:

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Breaking the Sound Barrier:
How to Work with a Third-Party Sound Designer


Where Does It All Start?

Questions Sound Designers Ask

Getting to Work

Avoiding Production Nightmares

Sound effects are an integral part of games, equal in importance to artwork, music, and game play. And I'm not just saying that because I create them either - I'm also a game player, so I understand their impact from that perspective, too. Sounds are designed to absorb the player into the game world, to make it believable, entertaining, and satisfying.

The process of determining the appropriate sounds for a given game situation, creating them, and implementing them in the game isn't always a painless experience. Both sound designers and game producers need to understand each other's professional needs and responsibilities so that the sound design process becomes less grueling to both parties. This article describes the process of determining what you will need from a third-party sound designer, what that person will need from you, and will briefly describe the process audio contractors go through to create high-quality sound effects.

Where Does It All Start?

Joey Kuras, sound designer for Tommy Tallarico Studios, has personal credits on more than 60 games, and he recently worked on the James Bond game, Tomorrow Never Dies. Early in the production cycle, he was given a list of effects needed for the title. He designed and delivered more than 200 sounds per the developer's request, only to have approximately 90 percent of them discarded as the production matured. He ended up recreating them later in the project. On another project, he received an unspecific and vague list of sounds. The request for a "splash" sound had little meaning to him. Was it a rock making the splash? A person? A 400-pound object or a four-pound object? Was the body of water a bathtub, a pond, or an ocean? No one he talked to was sure and they ended up waiting far into the project to solve the mystery.

This is a lesson for all of us. Early concepts of art and game play have a tendency to change and continuously evolve, so sound design at the outset of a project is usually a grand waste of time. Producers have the difficult task of trying to determine the audio needs of the game early in the development cycle, and if a contracted sound designer is used, the producer must find one whose skills and credits match those of the game being developed and negotiate the contract with that individual. When you are spending up to $30,000 for sound effects, you want to get your money's worth.

The producer may have to take a long-range look at what sorts of sounds the game may need (general Foley sounds, imaginative or "far out" sounds, and so on). If the game is to have a wide range of settings and characters, it can be difficult to imagine what this large bank of effects will consist of. Therefore, it's important to bring the development team together to begin thinking conceptually about the game audio as early as possible. If you've decided on a sound professional, bring him or her in on the discussion and listen to what the sound designer's experience has to say. A lot of time can be saved this way and the process will have more grease for a smooth ride. Don't be tempted to jump into the audio implementation details, however - starting the creation of game sound effects too early in the process often leads to major headaches down the line, as I'll explain later.

Usually, when a game is far enough along (at the point when characters, movements, and a defined game play model are present), the sound designer should enter the picture. By permitting sound designers to meet with the development team, view some rough game levels, and perhaps see some animation ideas, their idea machine can begin to churn out possible routes to take. Also, asking a few specific questions will bring a direction and necessary information together to get off to a smart start.

Contracting Out the Work

The actual task of finding a third-party contractor can be as arduous as creating the game itself. Unless you've worked with a particular sound designer in the past and you're comfortable using him or her again, you'll need to take care of some advance work. Even before the project is put out for bid, a media buyer (often the producer's role) can do homework. Investigate various sound design companies beforehand to stay ahead of the game. Web search engines can help, developer resource web sites are prevalent, and the numerous unsolicited e-mails, inquiries, and résumés can (finally) be taken advantage of. Request a sound designer's current demo reel, references, and examples of past work, and keep this data on file.

When the time does come to start looking at bids, the producer alone, or with several of the team members, sits down to evaluate submissions. Generally, they are looking for outstanding work, creativity, a shared vision, reliability, experience, and someone with whom they feel they can work for the length of the project. After the field has been narrowed to a couple of choices, pick up the phone or invite them over. It's a good idea to talk to the candidates either by phone or in person before any final decisions are made. Check their production schedules to ensure they will be available (some busier sound people are booked two to three months in advance), see which one you feel is best at communicating and receiving ideas, and get a sense of whom you can get along with.

Moving on from the courtship stage toward project commitment necessitates that both parties bring their interests (and sometimes lawyers) to the table and work out an agreement both sides feel comfortable with. Typically, though, negotiations for sound design work are fairly simple. More complicated negotiations come up when music creation is also part of the deal, because that can also involve hashing out ancillary rights, payment for different SKUs, bonuses, property rights for soundtrack releases, and so on. Spend a little time working out an equitable agreement and get the business out of the way so you can focus on the creative aspects of great development.

Prices for sound design services vary per contractor, as each contractor has different overhead costs to meet. Those with more experience can, of course, demand more, and their experience is usually worth the price. Rush jobs, special requests, and other tasks assigned to the sound designer (such as auditioning, hiring, and producing voice talent and their sessions, abnormal amounts of revisions or change orders, and so on) can increase the price, too, so try to plan ahead. The bottom line is that costs are definitely negotiable, but don't expect the contractor to work for free or below their expenses. For more information about payments and contracts for sound design, see the section titled, "The Audio Development Agreement" at the end of this article.


Questions Sound Designers Ask


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