Mix and Match: Craig Duman

The best sound design in video games goes unnoticed, as the player escapes into a new world. It's Craig Duman's job to sonically encourage that absorption. With 75 titles to his credit, Duman is an expert at mixing sounds and matching them to the right game.

Craig Duman’s job is to create universes that can’t be seen with the naked eye. Or anything else for that matter. As an audio manager at Warner Brothers Games in Seattle, Duman spends his days creating the music, sound effects, and atmospheric noises that transform games like Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, Midnight Club 3, Enter the Matrix, and Lord of the Rings: War in the North into multi-sensory experience players can hear and feel.

Jumping into the field in 1995, long before there was a degree program for it, Duman’s career started in the ancient days, just as the industry was transitioning from storing sound files on floppy disks to moving them on CD-ROMs. An avid gamer with a background in music, Duman knew the basics of sound editing and recording thanks to an internship and later full-time job with a record producer. He also saw that the new CD-ROM technology was going to revolutionize how game designers used sound to tell stories. Even without a formal degree, Duman quickly landed a job editing and mastering video game dialogue and sound effects for Interplay, creators of the Fallout series. “A lot of the skills I just learned [on the fly],” Duman says. “It was the Wild West. We just made things up as things went along.”

Over the past 17 years, Duman has worked on more than 75 game titles and taken on nearly every audio duty, from vocal casting to hiring composers to picking through thousands of sound files in search of the perfect effect. He says that despite the fact that many gamers will never notice his work at all, the moment when players can close their eyes and still feel like they’re in the game is what keeps him going back to the studio for more.

Get In Media: How do you separate a sound that will work in a game from a sound that won’t?
Craig Duman: First of all, the sound has to support the action. I think perspective plays a big part of that. So, say you’re sliding down a rope. You want to support that with audio, but it might take more than just a simple loop as you’re sliding. You kind of want to keep the perspective of the material and the action and the speed … the right answer is, does it create an emotional response or a tactile response for the player that allows them to understand their world better?… They should be able to close their eyes and say, ‘I’m by a beach’ and then open them and be by a beach. The sounds of the environment help place that player in a different environment than where they are … .

GM: It sounds like your job requires a certain degree of just being able to feel what the right sound is.
CD: Yeah. You listen to the sound and say, “Does that support the visuals? Does it create an element of excitement?” Music is a lot about controlling and supporting the emotions. You can use music to convey mood … Think of a movie of a guy walking up the stairs, and all you see is his feet. Now play a spooky sound behind it, and it’s a horror movie, but if you play Happy Birthday music as the guy’s walking up stairs, it’s a totally different message, but it’s the same scene. Music really has a huge power to control people’s emotions and influence how they feel, especially on a scene-by-scene basis … .

GM: Where are you looking for sound?
CD: You find it with a composer that you hire … You say, “this is a sad scene” or “this is a horror scene” or “you’re conveying sorrow” or “you’re conveying aggression,” and then they will craft up a musical cue for you … Sometimes, you might go through a couple of iterations before you actually go “You know what, I think that’s pretty good. Let’s drop that in the game.” You drop it in the game, and go “Yeah, but it’s a little too busy.” It’s really a process of iteration and experimentation. What might work in one situation might not work in another, and sometimes you’ll put in odd sounds that have nothing to do with the actual action on the screen, but they’ll just feel right. You have to really be able to feel that and be impacted by what you hear.

GM: What’s the scope of your job?
CD: As the audio manager, I’m in charge of all the audio for the project. That includes, first of all, understanding the game and the game design, developing audio systems that support that, developing the feel and the aesthetic quality of all the sound, working with the composer and sometimes collaborating, or just directing how the music is going to be in the game. Overseeing and developing the playback systems and the rules for how the music plays back in the game, overseeing the implementation of all of that on the music. Then from the dialogue side, understanding, hiring [the] casting director and helping cast and making sure that recording sessions happen on time, on schedule. Making sure all the dialogue gets edited, implemented into the game, and mixed, and, you know, quality checked. I do that with all of the sound effects as well and all of the in-game movies … and then finally, all of the ambient sounds throughout the world that make it feel alive and respond … .

GM: What are the unexpected challenges that you face when putting together sound for a video game?
CD: … Sometimes I’ll go out and just record things that I think would work for a certain sound in a game, and then I’ll get back to the studio, find that it won’t work for what I originally intended, but it could work absolutely wonderful for something else. It’s a lot of those things where you’re like “Well, I didn’t think it would turn out that way, but I certainly could use that sound for a different instance.”

GM: Can you give me an example?
CD: I wanted to make some electrical sounds [for a game] … I had imagined that Styrofoam might be able to make some sort of squeaky, chirpy electrical sounds so I went into the studio and recorded all kinds of squeaks and groans and crunches on these pieces of Styrofoam … It just didn’t work, but what I found was that they sounded really, really interesting slowed down to almost one-tenth of their speed. They turned into what sounded to me like large earth movements, earth rumbles but really texturized, and not like your standard grumble. I ended up using these Styrofoam sounds for some destruction and things collapsing, whereas I originally thought that they might be good for electrical sounds.

GM: Does your job lean more towards picking out music or picking out sound effects?
CD: … The way I think of games for music is usually in a four-quadrant basis. Up in the top right-hand corner, you’ve got sound effects, and then in the left-hand corner, you’ve got dialogue. Beneath one of the corners, you’ve got music, and then you’ve got ambient … There’s never an explicit, certain order [for] each of them, but there are certain things that happen a lot later in the project. Music will usually get recorded later in a project; dialogue records later. The technical systems, you start working up front. Sound effects are more up front. You get your base level systems in and working and functioning and make sure that you have everything ready, so that when the music does start rolling, then you have your system to plug it into … .

GM: From beginning to completion, how long does it take to sound design for a game?
CD: It really depends on the scope of the project. I’ve worked on games where I might have worked a month to do what needed to be done for a game, and then again, I’ve worked three or more years on audio for a game. I would have to say that at the early part of my career, I would ship 10, 15 games a year. I would say in the last eight years, the console games have been more prominent, so it’s dropped down to one [game] every three years … one of the trends is that a lot of games are going back to the mobile, so a lot of people are able to ship multiple games a year again. I find it really exciting. The industry is always reinventing itself, so keeping your skills current and up-to-date and continuously learning keeps you there in the industry. It’s really exciting and challenging to stay on top of everything.

GM: Is your job evolving at lightning speed?
CD: Yes and no … Field recording is field recording. What’s exciting is a lot of the sound [that] artists are coming out with for their own sound libraries and websites like SoundCloud are allowing people to showcase their work. In many ways, I think the industry is not so much getting smaller, but the ability to connect with people is a very interesting thing.

GM: What is the greatest challenge of your job?
CD: … one of the biggest challenges is getting it to the quality bar that you want to hit, finding something that you want to innovate on, getting it done on time, and not having to spend your life in the studio. Actually having a bit of a work/life balance, but, you know, when you pick something that you’re super passionate about, I think the lines between work and regular life tend to blur … . This is really ingrained in so much of what I do.

GM: For somebody who’s thinking about breaking into the field, what do you recommend they do?
CD: … They have to pick something that they’re really going to love. The great people in the industry don’t just kind of do things. They do them. If you’re going to do it, you might as well pick something that you’re going to love because a career is something that you’re going to do for the rest of your life, so you may as well be passionate about it … .

GM: What kind of education or skills background do they need?
CD: … It’s definitely good to understand how to edit sounds and be able to go from a recorded sound to an edited sound, understanding the actual engineering skills, understanding all the different tools. Audio is like a tool belt, and you don’t use every tool in every application, but it’s good to know what you can use your different audio tools for and what they do and how they work. Understand them inside and out, understand how to break the rules, because sometimes in audio there can be no rules. I don’t like to hear the words “You can’t do that.” A lot of times you can, and what they’re saying is “I can’t do that.”Get In Media

* Craig Duman’s opinions are not representative of Warner Brothers or Warner Brothers’ affiliates.

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