“A sound designer’s sound library is like a painter’s palette.”
As part of our monthly “Inside the Industry” series, we look behind the scenes at what makes the music industry tick. We talk to experts about what is really going on and we show that there is always so much more than meets the eye. This month, we spoke with Brian Ostreicher, drummer for Geographer and owner of Maid Marian Music about a very different segment of the music industry —sound design.
Hi Brian, thank you for talking with us and for sharing your expertise about a fascinating subject that doesn’t get talked about enough — sound for video games. Besides for your work as the drummer/singer for the band Geographer, you are also a sound designer. What exactly does that mean? What does a sound designer do?
I love being a drummer in a rock n roll band. Who wouldn’t? I also love creating unique and interesting sounds. That means I get to do two things I love as a profession, which I am extremely grateful for. These jobs are not mutually exclusive. I’m able to take my knowledge of sound design and apply it to writing and producing music with Geographer, which I feel gives our music unique depth and character.
For those who may not know, a sound designer creates, collects, and manipulates audio. You’ll usually find us in the film, television, theater, and video game industries. For me, I have the most experience in video game sound design. I’ve worked on many different projects from AAA console titles, to iPhone apps.
How similar is this to creating a score for a movie?
Creating a movie score is very similar to sound design work. If both are done properly, it should enhance the overall experience, without anyone thinking twice. If done poorly, it will stick out like a sore thumb. It isn’t a glamorous job, but it is very rewarding when you’re able to breath life into project and can hear what a difference it makes.
Wait a minute. Are game developers looking for original music or do they want to license existing songs?
Some games work better with specific styles of music that are already out there, like music games. So the publisher will seek out licenses for existing songs. Other games like fantasy games, work better with original music in order to truly immerse the gamer in a fictional world. Whether it’s cars screeching around a racetrack or swords clashing into each other, the sound designer has to compliment the game music and bring that world to life.
OK. So who hires you? Is it the game developer or is there a whole network of music supervisors for games out there? And how do they find you?
Large video game publishing companies, such as Activision and Ubisoft, have hired me to work on console games. I’ve also been hired as a contractor for Disney Mobile and smaller independent companies like Thumb Wizards. I’m sure there is a network of music supervisors for video games, but I’ll usually be lucky enough to get a gig by word of mouth. A good reputation can go a long way in this business.
How many sound designers are there? Are there huge firms or are they mostly single artists like yourself?
Most video game companies like to hire one or two sound designers per project. On a bigger project, there will be a lead sound designer who delegates tasks to the other sound designer. The lead will usually figure out a master plan, like the overall production process, before even beginning to create audio.
What kind of market are we talking about here? How much is spent annually for sound design?
The video game sound design market has a very wide range. From independent game companies, which operate on a shoestring budget, to large companies who may invest upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars into a project. Generally speaking, the more popular a company thinks their game will be, the more money they’ll put into the project.
How do you get paid? Is it contract work or is it based on royalties?
Working for larger companies, its standard to receive an hourly rate or a flat salary. For the smaller companies it is all contract work and you’ll bill them for your time. It is very rare to get paid royalties as a sound designer, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s happened before.
So what does a typical project look like?
One of the things I love about sound design is that there is no typical project. Each one is very unique, and getting the workflow down can sometimes be challenging yet very rewarding. Sound designers typically have a very large sound library to work from. A sound designer’s sound library is like a painter’s palette. It is an invaluable tool for gathering inspiration and to get the creative juices flowing. The more sounds you have to work with off the bat, the greater the sonic possibilities.
I’m so curious. How did you get started in this field?
I’ve always been interested in creating sound for video games. I was lucky enough to stumble upon a job posting which was looking for a drummer with MIDI experience. Since I create original music using computers and MIDI, I knew I would be perfect for the job. I ended up getting hired as a Notetracker at Activision. That was my first job in the game audio industry, and have been working on game audio ever since.
Is this field growing? Is it satisfying work?
The field is growing faster than ever, especially in the mobile market. Many of the apps that are out there for the iOS and Android platforms need sound, and more importantly, need talented sound designers to create for them! Like any job it has its ups and downs, but at the end of the day, I am very fortunate to be doing what I love to do for a living.
What skills make for a successful sound designer? It has to be much more than just being able to compose and create music. What type of artist should actively consider this as a potential career?
A successful sound designer should be creative, be fluent with the tools of the trade, and keep an open mind. You don’t even necessarily need to know how to compose and create music! Artists that enjoy using computers to create sounds and aural textures would definitely be a good fit for a sound design position.
And lastly, from a creative standpoint, how is sound design different than making an album?
There is definitely a correlation between sound design and making albums. They are both processes that involve planning, production, and creativity. Sound design deals with creating audio clips, which may or may not be musical, where making an album is first and foremost a music creation process. I’ve learned that there is no wrong way to do either, as long as it sounds good in the end.
And with that, thank you so much Brian!
Brian Ostreicher is the drummer for indie rock band Geographer. He is also a sound designer and video game music composer. When he’s not touring with Geographer, he works and lives in San Francisco, CA.
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