Behind the Pixels #1: Life of a Freelance Audio Designer
I am very curious about creative people and their origin stories – I like to know where they come from and how they got to where they are now! Going to start sharing these as part of a “Behind the Pixels” series for folks interested in those stories too.
[Mike Skalandunas is a “Composer for Visual Media” and super rad dude. I asked him a bunch of questions about how he got into audio design, he answered them all, then I asked a bunch more. Check out his website for an idea of the projects he’s worked on, follow him on twitter and have a listen to his tunes over on soundcloud.
My favourite quote: “I search the depths of the internet for games in production that I think my music will mesh well with and also that look particularly creative. If I find one that has no composer listed, I’ll message the developer to ask about the music situation and to express my interest in their game. In the end, whether or not they need me, I learn about many wonderful games and get to meet, if only virtually, some creative people and potential future clients.”]
My life is spent immersed in games and game audio. The world of game development is full of creativity, and I get to spend most of my time learning about cool projects in production and furthering my skills. Every once in awhile I also get to spend some time outside when recording new sounds for my sample and sound design library.
There is also an element of stress that comes with projects and deadlines, but that’s no different that any other aspect of the game industry. Working under pressure is a great way to get that creativity going.
Where did you start? How did you get into it?
I had just returned from a study abroad experience in Germany while studying film scoring at Berklee College of Music, and only had two semesters left of school. After experiencing such a wonderful culture, in a country rich with history and beautiful scenery, I knew I had to go back, but I also wanted to find work in game audio.
About a month after being back in the U.S., I started asking Berklee faculty in the film scoring department about opportunities in Europe, specifically in the fields of game audio and film composition. One of my professors sent me the name of an alumn in Munich, Germany, who had started his own game audio firm, FBPSound. Filippo Beck-Peccoz, the “FBP” in FBPSound, had founded Berklee’s Video Game Music Club, and also had created a partnership between Berklee and MIT’s GAMBIT-Singapore game lab. Knowing his background and his massive interest in the game audio field, I was eager to contact him.
After many months of back-and-forth email correspondence, Filippo and I decided to meet in Munich to discuss the possibility of an internship at FBPSound. We went over the details, and in the end we decided that three months spent working on building a unique instrument library would be a great way for me to get experience with sampling and sound design. The internship would also allow me to see the business side of freelancing as a game audio artist, and see the day-to-day of an audio artist who has several projects in the works.
I flew out to Munich in late September of 2011, and started the internship just a few days later. Each day brought new and interesting challenges, and I ended up learning far more than I had expected. Filippo gave me a plethora of information on how to create high quality synth patches, quickly and efficiently edit audio, prototype interactive and adaptive music, and use standard orchestral instruments in very unique ways. All of this was on top of the experience recording, building and fine-tuning instruments in Kontakt (an industry standard sampler by Native Instruments). At the end of the three months, I felt that I was prepared to face the game audio industry on my own.
Once I returned home, I created my website and built up a portfolio from small game projects I had worked on in my spare time while interning. From there, my freelancing has grown into a stable source of work and income, allowing me to continually work with game audio and follow my dream.
How do you keep the lights on? What kind of work do you do to pay rent?
Working on game projects for the most part. If I’m not doing that, then I’ll do some audio editing with dialogue or sample libraries.
How do you find your clients – how do they find you?
Finding a project can be difficult, but the process is always rewarding. I search the depths of the internet for games in production that I think my music will mesh well with and also that look particularly creative. If I find one that has no composer listed, I’ll message the developer to ask about the music situation and to express my interest in their game. In the end, whether or not they need me, I learn about many wonderful games and get to meet, if only virtually, some creative people and potential future clients.
When it comes to being found by potential clients, having a web presence is important. I have been contacted by developers after they have seen my work for other projects, or posts/follows on social media sites. Being active in online communities not only allows you to learn more about games in production and the people behind them, but it also gives potential clients a sense of who you are.
What’s an average work day like for you?
When composing, my day is mostly spent listening and planning. I’ll look over screenshots or video of what I need to write for, and then write down what I think the best course of action for the music would be. Should this area consist of several layers, each playing depending on the choices of the player? Maybe it should have evolving ambient music built up of many smaller stems? I need to ask myself questions like this to not only make writing the music easier, but also to ensure the best experience for the player. After all the planning is finished, I finally get to write!
Sound design is a much different story. A typical day starts out a bit messy, slightly dangerous and sometimes very wet or cold. Most of the early work is done field recording and gathering samples to be cut, resampled and layered later. An example of some recent field recording included my precious ZOOM H4N teetering preciously on the edge of a fence while I smashed rocks together to create the sound of a wall crashing down. Once the actual recording is over, I return to the comfort of my studio to process, edit and layer the sounds as I see fit. It’s a dirty job.
How do you work with a game dev team? (How often do you meet up, how do you manage deliverables, get paid, etc)
I try to always be around to answer questions or to brainstorm ideas. Since everything is done remotely, I’ll be prepared to answer emails or Skype messages at any time throughout the workday and after hours.
When working in Munich, our developers were in the office next door, so we had opportunities to discuss ideas constantly. Most of the time, we used the mornings to discuss things that needed to be done, and then later we would meet if they needed to review something, or if we needed to bounce some ideas off of them. Also lots of lunch together.
What’s the number one piece of advice you’d give to someone wanting to do audio for games.
I’d have to give two.
My first piece of advice is directed mostly at composers. Composers these days seem to be flooding internet forums not only with requests to write for games, but also to write for free or very little pay. I can understand this mentality when a composer is working on their first or second game and has no experience composing for the projects of others, but beyond that they’re just selling themselves short and bringing down the game audio industry as a whole. The audio in any game is incredibly important, and composers owe it to themselves to be paid adequately for the work they’re doing.
My second piece of advice is to keep learning about and exploring your craft. The audio world is huge and there are so many cool ways to innovate and make each piece of music or sound design project your own. Add new layers, mess around with effects, try out new and unusual samples in both music and sound effects, create a sample/synthesis hybrid soundscape; the possibilities are endless.
[Mike Skalandunas is a “Composer for Visual Media” and super rad dude. Check out his website for an idea of the projects he’s worked on, follow him on twitter and have a listen to his tunes over on soundcloud.]