• Ben Gallagher

My Top 5 Tips for Game Audio Sound Designers & Composers

It's no secret that becoming a game audio pro is a difficult task.


While there is much more opportunity in our field than often seems to be the case, it is still highly competitive.


If you're like me, you have often hoped to find some nugget of wisdom that might give you an edge in your career so that you can find the success you've been searching for.


They say nothing worth having comes easy and there is no shortcut around the years of hard work it takes to reach such a lofty goal.


But...


I've nonetheless done my best to gather for you my five favorite tips for a healthy and happy career as a game audio sound designer or composer.


Enjoy!


Knowledge, you may gain in this article.


 


Trust Your Instincts... But Be Open to Criticism


Nearly all of us working in game audio got into this business for one reason and one reason only...


We LOVE it!


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For whatever reasons, we have naturally gravitated towards game audio and have likely been obsessed with it for years before ever even considering it as a career.


This means we have spent many hours of our lives listening to and appreciating the sound and music of video games, and you know what?


That kind of makes us experts on it!


Even if we have not yet reached the point of creating masterful game audio experiences ourselves, we can recognize them when we hear them and are tuned in to the subtleties of this art form.


This hyper-awareness of the medium imbues us with a natural instinct for good or bad, right or wrong, creative or boring, etc...


And while there may be many of us working on audio for games, we are still a niche within a niche, which means this type of instinct is, on the whole, exceedingly rare!


So you should be confident in your choices and trust your gut when it comes to what kind of sound effects or music will serve the games you work on.


BUT... (you saw this coming, right?)


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Don't take it too far.


Making games is still a collaborative endeavor, which means you're unlikely to ever create a piece of music or sound effect that doesn't need to pass through a feedback process from the team.


And even the most well-meaning criticism can be hard to hear when your instinct is telling you that the decision you made is the right one (I personally still struggle with this a lot).


One thing I like to remind myself of before a meeting where I know my work will be critiqued is this:


We are all here to serve the best interests of the game and its players.

It can feel pretty damn awful to receive negative feedback about your work but remember that, unless you are working with downright psychopaths, everyone in the team's highest goal is to make a fantastic game!


And their feedback, even when perhaps delivered in a less-than-constructive manner, is a sign of their commitment.


For some people, giving feedback is just as difficult as receiving it so keep an open mind and remember to be empathetic to the opinions of others and things will be easier for everyone involved.


 


Take Chances & Experiment Often


While it isn't impossible to make money with rather vanilla sound and music, that's probably not what you're here for.


In your career, you may come up against harsh deadlines or difficult clients that make you want to put your head down and plow through the work just to get through it.


It's hard to live up to our highest creative aspirations when times are hard.


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If you don't keep that spark of joy alive in your work, you risk burning out completely and I think we can all agree that nobody wants that.


For this reason, I challenge you to do at least one tiny thing every day to keep the creative juices flowing.


This could be any number of things but here are two suggestions:



For Composers


Open up an instrument you rarely use or aren't familiar with and just play around with it. If you're feeling brave, maybe even try fitting it into a piece you can't imagine it would work in!


For Sound Designers


Slap a random plugin on something you're working on and scroll through presets to see what happens. Often I find I never knew what some of my plugins were capable of until I do this exercise. (P.S. this works for composers, too)



The more often you experiment like this, the more often you will stumble upon quirky or interesting sonic ideas that will improve your audio skills and help your work stand out.


 


Practice is Great (Up to a Point)


This tip is related to a mistake I have seen over and over and over again.


Yes, there is a lot you can learn by practicing sound design or composition in the solitude of your own room.


BUUUTTTT...


Making games is a team sport, and being a good team player is half the job!


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Go teamwork!



You simply can't practice the myriad skills needed to work effectively with others... by yourself.


Consider the point made in tip #1 about handling feedback.


You could be the world's best game composer or sound designer but if you can't...

  • listen to feedback openly,

  • discuss your opinions respectfully,

  • defend your choices effectively,

  • or negotiate solutions that your team is happy with and ultimately benefit the player...


...no one will want to work with you.


These are surprisingly difficult waters to navigate and the more experience you can gather swimming through them, the better!


If you're just getting started, I can't stress how important it is to get involved in real game projects with real game developers as soon as possible.


Luckily, game jams are going on quite literally all the time. You can join one nearly daily over at itch.


 


Always Serve the Player


In virtually every interview I've listened to with high-achieving game audio pros, I couldn't help but notice how they are always focused on the player's experience.


From the emotional content of the game's story being brought out through the music to the fine-tuning of chaotic battle sounds, the higher-level goals of the game are always on their mind.


It's hard to maintain this laser focus on the player when we ourselves spend most of our time alone in our room doing our work.


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I'm not the only one who needs a little cry sometimes... right?



But this is truly what separates the pros from the rest of us.


No amount of epic, masterfully-produced music or sound effects will do anyone's game any good if it isn't crafted to serve the player's gaming experience.


It's the combination of skillful audio production AND a deep understanding of the effect it will have on players that makes a game truly great.


Remember to ask yourself often whether you are making choices that will improve or elevate the player's experience.


 


Be a GREAT Communicator


If you've read any of my other blog posts, you know how seriously I take the art of communication.


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Whether you realize it or not, everything you do is constantly communicating something to the world around you.


And communication isn't limited only to words.


If you wear Nike shoes, you are communicating that you vibe with a certain lifestyle and brand.


If you stand alone in a corner at a party, you are communicating that you are shy and uncomfortable around people.


If you're in a video call with a potential client and your room/studio is an absolute mess, you are communicating your lack of organization and tidiness to them!


Long story short, there is perhaps no greater skill in game audio and in life in general than being a great communicator.



Good communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity.


Nat Turner



Think about it...


Our job is essentially to communicate important and exciting aspects of gameplay through sound and music.


That's all we do!


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But to even get to the point where we can do this job, we have to communicate why these things are important and why developers should give us their hard-earned money in exchange for our work.


When it comes to money, people aren't going to give you any if they are confused.


And it's not only in direct interactions and conversations that we need to bring clarity to this confusion...


Our websites, our portfolios, our social media presence... it all needs to communicate effectively!


Since these assets live online and are communicating 24/7 for you, it's unbelievably important to design them thoughtfully.


Communication is key!


 


Takeaway


Everyone has their favorite game audio advice and I hope you enjoy this small collection of some of mine.


As a final tip, I suggest you make a small, easily-accessible document with some of your favorite advice.


This could be quotes, TLDR versions of blogs like this, or even hyperlinks to your favorite motivating or enlightening articles and videos.


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Of course, there are always advice gifs!



No one is immune from having moments where you feel down or stuck and need a little support.


After reflecting on some of my favorite words of wisdom, I find I often feel much better and can get back to work.


And as always, remember to be kind to yourself as you try to find and follow good advice in life because...



The disadvantage to becoming wise is that you realize how foolish you've been.


Evan Esar



Did you like any of my advice?


Have some of your own you'd like to share?


Let everyone know in the comment section below.



 

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.