Essential Gear for Video Game Sound Designers
Are you set up for success as a video game sound designer?
Do you have right the gear to create great sound effects for games?
Every profession has its tools and sound design is no exception.
A game audio pro's success depends greatly on their ability to consistently deliver high-quality work that makes their clients happy.
While gear is often coveted for erroneous reasons, it is still essential to have the right tools to do your job well!
That's why I teamed up with the fabulously talented Greg Lester from Game Audio Analysis to bring you this fundamental list of game audio gear you can't live (or rather, work) without!
Good gear doesn't automatically mean good sound, but it sure helps!
Part 1 | Software
You might be surprised to hear this, but sound designers use computers... a lot.
And there are limitless pieces of software that can aid in your sound design work.
Luckily, they can be organized into three main categories of tools that you'll need on hand to do quality sound design work.
1 | Digital Audio Workstation
Your digital audio workstation (DAW for short) is the application in which you will record, edit, and produce your sounds.
It looks something like this:
This is a screenshot from Logic; a DAW made by Apple.
There are many fantastic DAWs out there and they range from cheap/free to outrageously expensive.
If you don't yet have a DAW or are looking for a new one, we would recommend checking out Reaper.
Reaper is incredibly popular in the game audio scene and, despite its low cost, is used by many of the world's top sound designers.
That being said, pretty much all DAWs offer the same core functions that will help you get the job done, so feel free to try a few and see which one you prefer.
This is a tool you will be using every day, so make sure it's one you enjoy working with!
2 | VST Plug-Ins
VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology but these tools are better known as "plug-ins".
Simply put, plug-ins are pieces of software that integrate into your digital audio workstation, allowing you to do more types of editing and processing to the sounds you are working on as well as create new sounds via synthesizers and sample instrument libraries.
You might recognize some common VST effects such as EQs (equalizer), compressors, reverb, etc...
The list goes on and on...
There really are this many VSTs.
Thankfully, pretty much all DAWs come pre-stocked with dozens of plug-ins that include all the basic effects you need as a sound designer. And a clever sound designer will already be able to do incredible work with these stock plug-ins, so don't worry about immediately breaking the bank on extra VSTs.
That being said, there are a lot of great plug-ins out there.
If you want to augment your current setup without hurting your wallet, check out this great list of free plugins from Splice.
Side Tip: Almost every company that sells plug-ins has at least one freebie they will give away in exchange for your email address.
However, if you have some cash to spend, look around on forums and reviews to see what other people are excited about that would perhaps improve your workflow.
The sky is the limit, but a word of warning:
Proceed with caution!
If you don't yet understand how these effects fundamentally work, buying more of them won't help you make better sounds.
A professional sound designer will be able to make jaw-dropping SFX with free plug-ins while a beginner loaded up with $100K of gear will still struggle.
Wrap your head around the basics first.
Only then can you make wise, informed decisions when purchasing new plug-ins.
3 | Sound Libraries
Sound libraries provide the building blocks for many of the sound effects you will be creating as a video game sound designer.
But which ones should you have?
In short, the ones you need for the project at hand.
Unless you only provide a very, very specific type of sound design service that never varies between projects, you will likely need to constantly add new sounds to your arsenal to meet the demands of your work.
For those just beginning their adventures in game audio, here are a few great resources for sound libraries that will help you get the ball rolling:
The Sonniss GDC Archive - tons and tons of free sound effects with more coming every year
A Sound Effect - The premier online shop for sound libraries. Subscribe to their newsletter for free sounds via email.
There are many, many others but these are the few that stand out.
One more thing you'll likely want to have next to the libraries themselves:
A Sound Library Manager
This is a piece of software that is essentially Google for your sound effect libraries.
It helps you to quickly search through and preview the vast amount of SFX files you'll no doubt collect before dragging them into your DAW for further use.
When you have thousands of sound files, finding the right one quickly is nearly impossible without a sound library manager.
Many DAWs have some type of sound/media library built-in, so go ahead and try that out first before spending your hard-earned cash.
Greg and I are big fans of Soundly, which you can use with not-too-limited features for free and also comes with a nice library of free sounds.
Soundly also cataloged the enormous freesound.org library which, although full of very amateur stuff, also occasionally contains some gems.
"But Ben and Greg, shouldn't I record my own sounds?"
We're glad you asked!
Yes, standard practice in our industry dictates that you should record your own sounds whenever possible.
There are two great reasons for this:
It will help you better understand how to make awesome SFX from scratch.
Sounds you record yourself will be completely unique to you!
That being said, libraries are a great way to acquire sounds you can't easily record on your own (think of things like horses, gunshots, or exotic locations).
They can also help you save time when deadlines are looming or the budget simply doesn't allow you to go out and create every single sound effect from scratch, which can be very time-consuming.
Most professionals work with a mix of custom-made and library sounds, so don't worry about it too much.
If the end result is good, it doesn't matter how you got there.
Part 2 | Hardware
While many tools of the sound design trade are housed in a packet of code, there are still important pieces of hardware needed to complete your setup.
What are they?
Let's dive in:
1 | The Computer
It's probably no surprise that you'll need a computer to run all that software we mentioned in the first section.
Even Snape knew that...
There are many, maaaany things we could potentially discuss on the topic of computers but that is outside of the scope of this article.
Long story short, if you have any computer at all, you are already capable of running most audio software you will need to make sound for games.
Now that that's out of the way, here are some quick points to consider if you don't yet own a computer or are considering purchasing a new one:
Storage Space - Sound libraries are LARGE and Unity/Unreal projects as well. If you're tight on space, you might need an upgrade.
Mac or Windows? - Both operating systems will do fine for the creation of sound effects. If you're interested in working intimately with game engines or are expecting any VR work, you might require a Windows machine.
Screens - One thing that many sound designers swear by is having as much screen real estate as possible. Having to constantly switch between the many windows you'll need for an efficient sound design workflow can be difficult (not impossible, but difficult) with just one.
Luckily for us sound folk, audio requires comparatively little computational resources and most computers/laptops made in the last 6-8 years will be equipped to handle a DAW and some plugins.
2 | Headphones
The astute reader will perhaps wonder why this section isn't titled "Headphones & Speakers".
That's an excellent question!
Here's the rub with speakers:
They are only as good as the room they are placed in.
Yes, friends, speakers are a double-edged sword.
They are no doubt preferable to headphones for many reasons, but the hard truth is they can cause considerable problems when not used in an acoustically treated working space.
An untreated room can, and usually does, negatively influence the sound of even the most high-quality speakers.
This leads to poor mix choices and unsatisfactory sonic experiences.
For those not ready to invest in at least bare-bones acoustic treatment for their room, headphones will be a better choice for the time being.
Since they sit right over your ears, there is no way even the worst room can influence the sonic clarity of what you're hearing.
No acoustic panels in your room?
There are lots of headphones out there to choose from, but here are three go-to models that most in the industry would agree are great to work with:
The Sennheiser and Beyerdynamics are particularly comfortable, which plays an important role when you are wearing them for 8 hours or more a day.
3 | Audio Interface
In order to send quality audio signals into and out of your computer, you're going to need an audio interface.
As it says in the name, this is a piece of hardware that interfaces with your computer and your other audio hardware, such as headphones, microphones, musical instruments, etc...
As a sound designer, you likely won't be needing large numbers of inputs or outputs, nor will you often need complex routing capabilities.
For that reason, something like the Focusrite Scarlett Solo is already a great start.
If you have multiple microphones and know you will need them simultaneously, the Scarlett series scales all the way up to 18 inputs, so just get the one that fits your situation!
18 inputs is probably a bit overkill for sound design...
4 | Recording Device
While your aforementioned audio interface is capable of connecting to a microphone and recording til the cows come home*, a sound designer often needs to go out into the world to gather sound from places that aren't their bedroom.
*I'm from Virginia. Yes, we say "til the cows come home".
Maybe you want to smash some rocks together in your backyard.
Or maybe you'd like to record the sound of rain in the forest near your home.
Whatever it is, the idea of constantly needing to bring your computer and interface just to do a quick outdoor recording session probably isn't appealing.
That's why the universe blessed us with portable recording devices!
The Zoom H5: A standard portable recorder
A portable recorder is a must-have for collecting your own sounds and, if you don't own any microphones at all, is probably your most important mic purchase.
The best recommendation for your first portable recorder would likely be one that has a built-in microphone.
With a built-in mic, there is no extra gear to worry about!
Just point the recorder at your sound source and hit record.
Simplicity at its finest.
Both companies offer multiple versions of these products so feel free to browse the others if you need more or fewer features.
There you have it!
These are the essential tools you need to work as a sound designer for games.
Is this an exhaustive list that will prepare you for any and every job ever?
But it will get you started and covers pretty much all base-level work a video game sound designer needs to fulfill.
I try not to write a lot about gear on my blog because there's a tendency in many tech-related fields to obsess over it as the end-all-be-all of quality.
In a word, this is bullshit.
"It is essential to have good tools, but it is also essential that the tools should be used in the right way."
Wallace D. Wattles
Mastery of technique will trump the best tools any day of the week, so stop worrying about your gear and start worrying about how well you can use it!
Finally, I'd like to say a special thank you to Greg Lester for collaborating with me on this post (feel free to thank him in the comments!).
If you want to learn more about game sound design, then subscribing to Greg's fantastic Youtube channel, Game Audio Analysis, is an absolute MUST.
I created The Game Audio Pro with the goal of helping others understand the fundamental business skills that are often the difference between success and failure for freelancers.
If you're ready to take your game audio career to the next level, download my guide to The Most Important Mindset for Game Audio Success.