Multimedia sound workers are responsible for creating the audio aspects of computer and video games. Their work is essential to a game’s success—adding to a game’s intensity and dimension and enhancing gamers’ playing experiences. Ironically, though, when sound workers have done their jobs well, the sound becomes such an integral part of the video game that few players notice it as a separate, painstakingly developed game element. At the start of the video game age, the technologies available limited a game’s sound to simple noises, such as a “pong” or a “beep, beep, beep.” Since then sound capabilities have developed dramatically so that players can actually hear the game world they’ve entered through such things as surround sound, characters speaking naturally, noises in the game’s environment, and full musical compositions. Sound workers also work for music publishers, film and television production companies, recording companies, dance companies, musical theater producers, and advertising agencies.
Multimedia Sound Worker Career History
At the beginning of the video game age, developers naturally focused on game play and visuals. Today, with ever faster computer processors, increasing storage space, a variety of equipment on which to play—from the Internet to the home console—and sophisticated recording and editing software and hardware, sound workers are gaining in both importance and the respect they receive. Audio is one of the most rapidly developing areas of game work, and many in the industry see this field as one that will have dynamic future growth.
Multimedia Sound Worker Job Description
Some sound workers are employed by large, well-known companies, such as Nintendo, on a full-time basis. Many sound workers, however, work on a contract basis, meaning that they are freelancers who are hired by companies to work on a particular project, and sometimes a particular aspect of a particular project, until it is completed. Because of this and other factors, such as the size of the employer, sound workers are referred to by a number of job titles. In addition, they may be responsible for many types of sound production or focus on only a few sound areas.
Sound designers, sometimes known as sound engineers, are responsible for all of the sound used in a computer or video game. They create the squealing noise of a race car’s tires, the squish of a character walking through mud, the zap from an alien’s weapon, or the crunching thud of one football player tackling another. They are also responsible for any talking, singing, yelling, and so on, that characters in the game do. Finally, they create or find recordings for all of the music to be used in the game. All of a game’s sounds must fit in with its action and setting in order to draw players in and increase their emotional experience with the game. Sound that doesn’t fit will be jarring and can end up annoying players and even ruining the game experience. Therefore, to do their job successfully, sound workers must work well with other game team members to ensure that the sound they create fits just right. The first team members that sound designers usually consult are the game designers. It is the sound designer’s job to find out what look and feel the game designers want. To do this, the sound designer may look at concept sketches and ask the game designers questions. How many levels of play will there be? Who is the intended audience? Where will the game be played (for example, in an arcade, on the Internet, or on a console)? Does the game take place in a particular time period, such as 100 years in the future or during the Civil War? Answers to questions like these give sound designers a framework for their work. For example, if the game will be played in an arcade, the designer will know to make sounds louder and simpler than for a game played on a console at home. If the game takes place in the past, for example, the sound designer may need to do research to find out what musical instruments were used then and then find ways to reproduce their sound.
Sound designers also frequently work with artists and animators. To enhance the game, sound designers must make sure the characters’ voices somehow compliment their looks as well as match up with the artists and animators’ visions of their personalities. For example, the sound designer needs to know if a large, bear-like character should have a deep, slow-speaking, friendly voice or squeaky, fast-speaking, unpleasant voice. Voices also need to match up with the character’s actions. In some sports games, for example, a commentator may speak during much of the game but will need to adjust his or her voice—from fast and excited to disappointed to surprised, and so on—to suit the events. Sound designers also work with game programmers to ensure that the final sound produced is what was desired. Although sound designers generally don’t have to write the programming code, those who have coding knowledge are at an advantage because they have a good understanding of both the programmer’s job and how to achieve the best sound style.
Sound designers usually have access to a “sound library,” recordings of many different sounds. But they must also know how to create and record their own sounds for use in a game. This can mean recording sounds that will be used realistically in the game world; for example, recording the noise of a passing train to use in a game scene with a passing train. It can also mean recording sounds to go with imaginary action in a game; for example, recording a rotten apple hitting a brick wall to use for the game sound of a zombie being punched in the stomach. Sound designers create music using special software and equipment, such as a keyboard that simulates many instruments. They may write the music, play it, and record it (or they may hire composers and musicians to write and perform the music). Occasionally they may make a recording of live music and even be responsible for finding the right musicians for the work. In addition, game designers sometimes ask the sound designer to use music that has already been produced, such as songs from a popular band. For example, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 incorporates music from well-known punk rock bands such as Motorhead and the Ramones. Music licensors are the professionals who negotiate with music labels and up-and-coming bands for the rights to use music in the games. In that case, either the sound designer or a music licensor needs to get permission to use the music from the recording label. Sound designers also record the actors who do the voice-overs for the game characters. Again, sound designers are sometimes responsible for finding actors to do this work, or they may do some of the voice-overs themselves.
The extent of sound designers’ responsibilities depends a great deal on factors such as their experience, the size of the employer, and the budget for creating the game. In an environment that offers the opportunity to specialize, such as at a large company, there may be sound designers who work only on sound effects. These sound effects designers concentrate on creating the noises for specific events in a game—a car crash, a baseball being hit, a bomb exploding, and so on—as well as background noises, such as rain falling or a dog barking far away.
Composers are sound specialists who focus on creating the music for a game. They need to be able to write music in many different styles—techno, rock, and even classical—for different games and to create many different moods. Frequently composers know how to play an instrument on their own, and many find that knowing how to play the piano, synthesizers, or samplers is particularly helpful. Musicians perform, compose, conduct, and arrange music for computer and video games. They may work alone or as part of a group to create music. Some composers and musicians may also have additional duties as sound designers or sound effects designers. To create the various types of sound and music that appear in games, composers and musicians may work from storyboards, a finished game, or nothing but an idea or concept for the game.
Multimedia Sound Worker Career Requirements
If you are interested in becoming a sound worker, you should take computer science and math, including algebra and geometry. You should also take history, English, and other college prep classes. Of course, take as many music classes as possible and learn how to play one or more musical instruments, especially the piano, synthesizer, and keyboard.
In the past, most sound designers learned their trade through on-the-job training. Today, many sound designers are earning bachelor’s degrees in music, sound design, or audio engineering, and this will probably become more necessary as technologies become more complex. Typical programs focus on computer and music studies, including music history, music theory, composition, sound design, and audio engineering.
If you are interested in becoming a composer or musician, you can continue your education in any of numerous colleges and universities or special music schools or conservatories that offer bachelor’s and higher degrees. Your course of study will include music history, music criticism, music theory, harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, melody, and ear training. In most major music schools courses in composition are offered along with orchestration and arranging. Courses are also taught covering voice and the major musical instruments, including keyboard, guitar, and, more recently, synthesizer. Most schools now cover computer techniques as applied to music as well.
Sound designers need to be able to use the latest technologies to record, edit, and “sweeten” their work. Workers in this field are continuously updating their skills, learning how to use new tools or techniques to create the sounds they want. Composers and musicians need to have a passion for music, an interest in computer and video games, and a high degree of dedication, self-discipline, and drive. All sound workers should also have strong communication skills to be able to work with a diverse group of game industry professionals and have flexibility to work with a variety of musical genres.
Exploring Multimedia Sound Worker Career
If you are interested in becoming a sound worker, you can start experimenting with sounds and effects on your computer at home. Listen to current games and try to recreate their sounds or work with a group of friends to create a brand new game that contains sound effects and music that you have come up with on your own.
The Internet is a great place to learn more about the computer and video game industry and sound careers. Online publications such as Game Developer (http://www.gamasutra.com/topic/game-developer) will provide you with an overview of opportunities in the industry. Check out http://www.audiogang.org/, the site for the Game Audio Network Guild, which offers student membership. You also might want to read online publications, available at the International Game Developers Association’s Web site, http://www.igda.org/. It offers an overview of sound careers, profiles of workers in the field, and other resources.
Another way to learn more about the field is to attend the annual Game Developers Conference. This will allow you to meet people in the business and other enthusiasts, see new games and technologies, and even attend workshops of interest to you. Of course, this event can be expensive, but if your funds are limited, you may want to work as a student volunteer, which enables you to pay much less. Visit http://www.gdconf.com/ for more information about this conference.
Multimedia sound workers are employed by computer game companies and developers. Some sound professionals, especially composers and musicians, work on a freelance or project basis. Many positions in the computer and video game industry are located on the East and West Coasts and aspiring sound workers may have to relocate to these regions to find work in the industry. There are a significant number of game companies in Illinois, Texas, Maryland, and Massachusetts.
Sound workers have many opportunities for employment outside of the computer and video game industry. For example, sound designers with specialized training may work in the recording, music video, radio, and television industries. Composers can try to sell their work to music publishers, film and television production companies, recording companies, dance companies, musical theater producers, and advertising agencies. Musicians can work for religious organizations, orchestra, schools, clubs, restaurants, and cruise lines; at weddings; in opera and ballet productions; and on film, television, and radio.
Sound workers can learn more about jobs in the industry by visiting game company Web sites and sites that advertise job openings, such as Game Jobs (http://www.gamejobs.com/) and Gamasutra (http://www.gamasutra.com). Many people attend the annual Game Developers Conference to network and learn more about internship and job opportunities. Aspiring composers and musicians usually break into the industry by creating a demo tape of their work and submitting it along with a resume to game companies. They might also create a Web site that features samples of their work for potential employers to review.
With experience, sound workers at software publishers can advance to the position of music or audio director and oversee the work of sound designers and other professionals. Others might start their own companies and provide services to game companies on a freelance basis. Advancement for composers and musicians often takes place on a highly personal level. As they become known for their artistic abilities, they may be asked to compose or perform music for more prestigious projects or companies. Some may become well-known composers and musicians in the film and television industries or in the fine arts.
According to Gamasutra.com’s 2003 Game Development Salary Survey, sound workers with two years or less experience earned average annual salaries of $45,780. Those with two to five years of experience averaged $53,540, and those with six or more years of experience averaged $77,745. According to the International Game Developers Association, salaries for sound workers range from $45,000 to $130,000, with an average of $57,500 annually.
The American Federation of Musicians has created a pay scale for musicians and composers who perform or write music for computer and video games. The current agreement is based on a minimum three-hour session, intended use, the number of musicians or composers involved in the project, and the stage in game development, among other factors. Under this agreement, musicians and composers are paid the following flat fees for each three-hour session: $144 for games in development, $175 for a single-platform product (music or composition may not be used in game sequels or in other platforms), and $198 for a multi-platform project (music or composition may be used in game sequels and in other platforms).
Full-time sound workers receive typical fringe benefits such as paid vacation and sick days, health insurance, and the opportunity to participate in retirement savings plans. Freelance sound workers must pay for their own health insurance and other benefits.
Sound designers work in recording studios that are usually air conditioned because of the sensitivity of the equipment. Studios may be loud or cramped, however, especially during recording sessions where many people are working in a small space. Some designers may be required to record off-site, at live concerts, for example, or other places where the recording is to take place.
The physical conditions of a composer’s workplace can vary according to personal taste and what is affordable. Some work in expensive, state-of-the-art home studios, others in a bare room with an electric keyboard or a guitar. Musicians employed in the game industry may work in recording studios, home studios, or at concert halls and other venues.
Multimedia Sound Worker Career Outlook
Although the use of sound in computer and video games is growing in importance, sound workers still make up a very small portion of professionals in the game industry. As a result, competition for jobs in the game industry is very strong. Sound workers who have a combined knowledge of sound design and composition and/or musical abilities will have very good employment prospects over the next decade. The rarest breed of sound worker is the professional who has expertise in both sound and game programming. Demand for these specialized workers will be especially strong over the next decade.