Sound Bites: Aaron Walz
With more than 100 games under his belt, Aaron Walz knows that sound design is more than music to the ears.
If you want to spend most of your time making music, stay away from the gaming industry, says Aaron Walz. While writing tunes is a part of what Walz does—he has, after all, composed and sound designed tracks for more than 100 games—a larger part of his day is spent meeting with clients, tweaking his songs, and facing the constant battle of finding new work. What most music programs don’t tell you is that sound design is a business, one that requires the talent and ear of a professional musician as well as the acumen of a successful entrepreneur. A prolific game composer and sound designer since 1998, Walz has worked on popular games including Ravenwood Fair and the Aveyond series and nabbed a Best Sound award from Game Tunnel (now IndieGameStand.com) for the latter title. Even with accolades in hand, he still maintains a strong marketing and self-promotion offense, which he says helps keep the jobs flowing in. Here’s how he does it.
Aaron Walz: Usually they are, I would say, really far along by the time they hire audio. They usually have a build or are really close to having a build. They definitely have the design document completely done with some ideas of what they want sound-wise, maybe comparing to other popular games or movies or composers. A lot of times they’ll say, “Hey, we’re releasing this game in a month so we need the audio in two weeks.” That happens so much. It’s a little bit unfortunate because, just like anything, be it art or story or writing or whatever, there’s definitely a revision process and a lot of times that’s kind of forgotten about with audio. Developers assume that you’re going to get it right the first time. I always try to challenge developers and say, “Did you get the art right the first time? Did you have to edit the text or the code?” When we get a little more time, it’s a lot better because music sits with us and when we hear it again, we hear things that we don’t like. Really, the key to good game audio is the iterations and the revision process. When that’s rushed, it can be bad.
AW: Generally speaking, when people watch movies, they don’t rewind 20 minutes and watch that 20 minutes again whereas with games, it’s rarely that way. The user has free choice to go back to an area and a lot of times there might be a time limit, but it’s not all set in stone, like this track will play for ten minutes and then they’ll be at level two. They can take a little extra time, a little less time, they can go back. There’s a main menu they hear every time they load the game. That’s the biggest difference is remembering that [games are] not linear.
You have to figure out which areas [players are] going to hear the most often and for how many minutes on average they are going to hear that music in an average game play. That’s how you design your music. If you are making town music, for instance, for a resource management game and the average player spends 20 minutes in a town before they go to battle and then the battle only takes maybe only three minutes, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a game like that where the town music is 48 seconds long and the battle music is three minutes. It’s just a waste of resources because they’re going to hear the town music like 20 times in a row and a battle, they’ll never get through the whole song probably. … Sometimes things change in the game like, “Hey, that level is no longer there, but let’s use the song for something else,” but now we have to change it slightly. There are all sorts of reasons for revisions. It’s rare that I write something that’s not needing to be revised another day. Very, very, very, rare.
AW: Especially with mobile games, which is a lot of the work that I do, they want menu music, they want maybe two or three levels, and a few stingers, so a victory fanfare stinger or a “you lose” stinger. Generally speaking, developers want a minute of music because of file size. That’s a generally accepted amount of time. I always try to talk people into doing more than that, especially if they don’t have a lot of songs, because no matter how well-composed your song is, it’s just a minute playing over and over and over. Generally, between five and 10 minutes of music is about average. For a bigger budget game and a larger scope game, especially games that are RPGs or adventure games, where the player goes to a bunch of different lands and all of that sort of thing, I’ve written between half-hour or an hour for one game. It varies a lot. Generally speaking, in the mobile sector, somewhere around five minutes is about average.
AW: … If you’re able to, it’s definitely something you should do because these game companies often want a one-stop shop. They don’t want to hire a separate composer and a separate person to make sound effects and a separate person to record voiceovers. They want one person or one studio or company to do all of it.
As a composer, it’s much, much better to be in control of that because the sound effects, first of all, they just might be terrible and then it’s disconcerting to make your music over it because people are going to maybe assume that you did the sound effects. One thing that people don’t know, especially if they’re non-musicians, is that sound effects all have some kind of pitch or key. Even though you think you can’t hear a note per se, they’re all tuned just like drums are tuned too. As a musician you can hear this, and as a non-musician you can perceive it, but you don’t realize you’re hearing it. A really, really well-oiled sound designed game is going to have the sound effects, especially the ones played most often, tuned with the music that is playing at that time. If you don’t have control over the sound effects, you really can’t do that. You can make your music try to be in tune with the sound effects, but the sound effects may not be in tune together. It’s the same with voiceover. I’ve had to make music over voiceovers that were too quiet or too loud and it’s really challenging. But if you have all of it, then you get to tweak every single bit. Those are my favorite projects to work on, when I’m doing everything in harmony. It’s really, really fun.
AW: Generally speaking, you have no contact with the people who are making the sound effects if you have not been hired for that. In fact, [development studios] won’t even really divulge that. You have to ask and you have to force them to give you that information if you really want to talk to those people.
Most times when this has happened, the sound effects are already done. They’ll have them already done and they just want to throw music on top of that. It’s already too late for you to ask for anything to be changed. What I have done, and this has worked, is I’ve said, “Awesome, you guys have sound effects. What I really would love is if you could send me all of the raw sound effects that are in this game and if you wouldn’t mind me tweaking them to better suit the music since I didn’t do the sound effects.” A lot of cases, they’ll be happy to do that. That is one way around it and that works if it’s already all done.
Worst case scenario, though, is basically the producer or one of the programmers has gone to some sound effects library, or maybe even worse a free sound effects library, and just kind of dumped a mish mash of sound into the game. It’s really hard to make that sound super good. A professional sound designer knows which sounds to choose if they’re using a library and most of the time these effects are customized. For example, the sound of a dish clinking on a saucer is going to sound different in every room that you record it. It could be in a dry recording studio. It could be in a loud, big restaurant. It can be in a kitchen in your house and it’s all going to sound different. If you buy different sound effects that are recorded in different rooms and then play them altogether, it’s really not believable. Unless you’re a sound designer you’re not going to be able to put your finger on it, but I guarantee that you’ll perceive it as not sounding excellent.
AW: A lot of different ways. … I think the most important thing is that you have to learn how to market yourself and how to be really unafraid of reaching out everywhere. Also, you have to learn how you can contribute to the industry. What I started doing pretty much right away is volunteering at the Casual Connect game conference. …
Your reputation is super important. What games you’ve worked on is super important. I have been very diligent about putting all my credits on my website so when people ask me what I’ve worked on I can send them there. … I’m very active on Twitter and I’m very active in making sure I have gameplay videos on YouTube, things like that, just so I have a presence.
The other thing is reaching out to people that you haven’t met before. To do that, I’ve done many, many different things, but one of them is I’ll go through lists of top-selling games on iTunes [or] the Google marketplace and I will just look at each company name and I will find a contact for every single one and reach out to them. People are often afraid to do that and they don’t know how to do it properly. I’ve found that you must sell yourself but not too heavily. You don’t want to annoy people. You don’t want to send them demos if they haven’t asked for them because they very, very seldom get played. Dropping names is super good and saying, “Hey, I did Ravenwood Fair” or “I did this” or “I did that” or “I’m doing this in the future, I’m speaking in Amsterdam in a couple of weeks.” Just to put it out there that you’re really active and serious and put a link or two and say, “It would be mutually beneficial to work together.” Just doing that all the time. It’s unending.
AW: Dragon Nest. Dragon Nest is a multi-player RPG and they have several versions of it. It originally came from Korea and then it was ported to North America, so a lot of things were localized, especially all of the voices, but some of the music as well. Then it was ported to other English-speaking territories such as Australia and such. One of my clients was in charge of localizing it for these English non-North American releases. I had to redo the entire game voices, and if you’ve ever played an RPG where they talk to you, you will understand that is quite a big undertaking. It involved over 100 characters and thousands of lines of text. It sounds brutal enough, but they were quite demanding as far as the time schedule, so sometimes I would get a script that was something like 1,000 lines. On Sunday night I would get an email and they would say, “We need this by your Friday,” and by the way it’s four different voice actors.
First of all, I had to see if people were available. Secondly, I have to get them into the studio. Third of all, I have to proofread your script because you’re not English-speaking as a first language and this script has errors in it, and furthermore I have to edit and chop them all into the proper file names. It’s quite a bit of work. Finally, I have five other projects that I’m working on right now. The most brutal part of it was … I got all the original Korean voices and culturally, especially the way they view women, is very different from our culture. They gave me full run of the audition process, so I cast [the voices] myself. Sometimes a game developer will want to be involved in casting, but in this case, because of the short time, it would be really impossible. A lot of them came back saying that’s not appropriate for this character. [The women’s voices are] too low and generally they didn’t like women that had alto ranges. What I did to combat that in the future was I had more than one person read each line. It sounds so ridiculous, but given the time constraint it was much easier for me to double my work up front than to bring someone back later. I would have each actress read for several characters and then use the best person. It was basically auditioning while doing the work. It was very, very challenging as far as meeting the deadlines, getting the clients happy, getting all of it to sound natural and not cheesy.
It’s quite a bit of work. It was definitely a few months before I finished all that, six to nine months, and then I did some music that went a lot more smoothly than the voiceover, but it was definitely worth it. It’s super fun to play an MMORPG where you’ve done all the voices. Super fun.
AW: Most of your time will not be spent making music. If you have an in-house job, that will be skewed more heavily to making content but it’s not the content you want to make; it’s the content you have to make for your company. Be prepared to be able to become stronger than you’ve ever been as far as mental toughness. You have to accept rejection everyday and see it as a form of victory. You have to budget really well. You have to be able to coordinate up to probably about eight clients is the most I’ve worked on at once and make them all happy. You have to constantly have your eye on the back door. When you’re finished with a project is not the time to look for new work. You’re doing that while you’re working or else you’re going to have no work by the time you’re done.
I love what I do, but you do have to change your mentality from “I’m getting paid to be at my job” to “I’m getting paid for doing work.” It’s a huge change if you’ve had any sort of payroll job, especially at an office. [In that case] of course you’re doing work, but you might goof off for a day or half a day and you get paid time off and all of that. When you’re on your own, that’s all out the window and you have to be responsible and accountable for everything you do. Commit to reading every day and learning and practicing your craft. I find that performing in a chorus that performs at a very high level keeps my composition chops really active as far as what classical musicians are doing. My ear is constantly challenged and I’m having to learn music. Keep your music alive other than games.
You can listen to samples of Walz’s tunes at Walzmusic.com.
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