Congrats! You’re basically a lvl. 20 Game Audio Wizard at this point! In this series so far, we’ve covered the basics of getting started in game audio, including some general points about composition and sound design specifically. Now you’re ready to really get out there and create some great game audio!
Today I want to share some thoughts about honing your art, but before I jump into the meat of this particular post, let’s really quickly talk about game audio implementation tools.
As Game Audio Wizards, we have a few tools at our disposal that help us work with the game development teams to get our delicious-sounding audio assets into the game. Talking about implementation tools and giving a walkthrough of how they work specifically is deserving of its own blog post series (which I will likely do in the future). For now though, I just want to let you know about some of the tools and the very basics of what they are capable of so that you have an awareness about them and can start doing research on your own to see which tool might work best for your game project.
Two of the most commonly used tools for implementation are Wwise (pronounced “wise”) and FMOD. There are other tools out there you can use for implementing your audio — such as Fabric — but again this is just a very brief and general overview, so I’ll save the detailed comparison of tools for another blog post. Each of these tools can link into most of the common game engines (Unity, Unreal, etc.), and each tool has its own pricing/licensing structure which can be found on their respective website.
What is the purpose of using these tools? Well, let’s say you’ve created four variations of the footstep sounds for the main character in your game, but the developers want more variation in the footsteps. You could use Wwise for example to create a container of footstep sounds that randomly selects a footstep and very slightly tweaks the pitch each time so each one sounds different. That saves you a TON of time from having to make 50 new and unique footstep sounds or having to code that randomization and pitch variation from scratch!
Another example: let’s say you’re working on a game where the main character can fly, and you might decide that you want to implement some dynamic music. You could have a base music layer playing during flight, and when your character reaches a certain speed or perhaps encounters a wave of enemies, you could use FMOD to fade in additional layers to complement the player’s actions, helping to create a deeper sense of immersion into the game.
These are just a few very basic examples of how these tools can help add more interactivity and dynamic audio in your game, thus making the game a much richer experience (and boosting your Audio Wizardry by at least 50 levels). Again, I’ll go into the specifics and pros/cons for each of these implementation tools in the future, along with some tutorials and more in-depth examples.
Honing Your Art
Whether you’re focusing on composition or sound design or both, there is always going to be room to improve. One of my philosophies on life is that it is about pushing yourself to grow, to reinvent yourself constantly as you learn new things and strive to become the best version of yourself as possible. This definitely applies to game audio as well – there are always going to be new projects that will force you to think in new ways and try new composition techniques or audio processing workflows. For the remainder of this post, I’m going to talk about how to get better at whatever field(s) you’re interested in pursuing — how to hone your art along your journey as an artist.
How to Get Better
Whether you’re a composer, sound designer, painter, parkour traceur, astrophysicist, or toaster repair person, there is one simple, guaranteed way that you will get better at your art and craft: just do it. A lot.
As the saying goes, “practice makes perfect”. While I personally take issue with the idea of perfection (I’ll save that discussion for another post), practice definitely does make you better. If this sounds pretty obvious and you’re like “SHUTUP JACOB I ALREADY KNOW THIS UGHHHHH”, then I don’t blame you! I think most people are aware that they just need to sit down and do the thing to get better.
What I think a lot of people struggle with however, is finding ways to make practice a habit and staying motivated to keep on track. I’m here to help you with that! Here are a few strategies and techniques you can use to help you stay on course.
Revisit your ‘Why’ and Set Goals
Remember in one of my earlier posts in this series I asked you think about the big ‘why’ you wanted to get into game audio? Now is a great time to go back and revisit that to remind yourself why you do want to get better. If your ‘why’ has changed since the last time, that’s totally cool! Grab your journal and write down your new or revised ‘why’. I think it’s healthy to take some time to revisit and redefine your ‘why’ every once in a while.
So now you know why you want to get better, but where are you headed? The next step is to set some specific goals. Maybe you’re currently working a full time job and you want to transition into full-time freelance in 6 months from now. Or maybe you’ve only ever worked with virtual instruments and want to use a full live ensemble of players for your next project. Whatever your goals, write them down (seriously, grab your journal and write them down) and plug into your calendar the ideal dates by when you wish to meet these goals.
Then you can ask yourself: “What needs to happen and what kind of person do I need to become to accomplish those goals?” This is the fun (and slightly daunting) part, because it forces you to start thinking creatively and becoming more resourceful. What kind of SFX portfolio do you need to build, or what networking events would you benefit from going to to meet people who might be involved with games you’d want to be a part of (which, yes, means you do have to put on pants and go outside), or what guitar practice schedule do you need to set up for yourself so that you’re taking steps that move you closer to wherever it is you want to be?
If you’re just starting out and aren’t totally sure where you want to head yet, but just want to focus on generally getting better at music and/or sound design, that’s cool too! You might be just exploring right now, trying to see what you enjoy working on. My advice still applies: create… a lot. Start wide and explore tons of styles of genres. As you practice more, you’ll likely start to naturally narrow down a little over time and will focus more on the things that resonate with you and will gain more clarity about what your creative voice is. Have fun with the process of experimentation and exploration!
While you might have certain goals along the way (such as working with a live choir by the end of the year, or creating sounds for the next Halo), as you meet these goals it’s important to keep setting new ones so that you are always moving forward and trying new things out of your comfort zone. A highly-respected AAA composer once told me that every project is an opportunity to reinvent yourself, to try something new that forces you to move out of your comfort zone and get creative, to force yourself to not become complacent. Don’t be afraid to shoot for something that seems totally out of reach or you have no idea how you’d accomplish it right now. Trust in the process of growth and trust in yourself to figure it out as you go.
Set Up a Schedule (and Expect to Fail)
No matter what your goals are, setting up a schedule is a crucial way to start building up the regular habit of practicing whatever it is you’re working on. I totally get that everyone has stuff going on in their lives, so set up a practice schedule that works for you! If you can only make the time to practice piano/create sci-fi SFX/etc. for only 5 minutes a day, three times a week, then do it! Or maybe you have a lot of time right now and are feeling really ambitious and will go to two networking events a week for the next two months. Whatever you decide is best for your schedule, write it in your calendar and tell your friends what you’re up to (having accountability is an excellent way to stay on track — more on that in a second).
Even if your practice schedule is only 1 minute a week, things can still happen though that cause you to be shifted off track. Recognizing that this *will* happen is really important to helping you stay on track — this is totally normal and is to be expected. Even the most productive and effective time managers still slip up sometimes, so when you do fall off track, don’t beat yourself up! Just pick back up and get back on track for the next time. You can even schedule your time so you have a buffer to account for this. For example, if your goal is to get better at piano, you might decide to practice for 20 mins/5 days a week. That way, if you miss a day, you have two extra ones in the week to make up for it!
Thoughts on Failure
You might not always hit your goals by your target dates. That’s totally okay! Some might call that a failure and would choose to give up right then and there, telling themselves that that this path isn’t right for them or that they’re not good enough — I applaud you if you fail, because it means you had the courage to try in the first place. What’s more is that you’re still a lot closer to reaching your goal than you were when you first set the goal because you were putting in the time to develop the necessary skills.
For example, you may have a goal to be signed onto your first indie game by the end of next month. To get there, that means you were likely putting in the time and effort to network and get your name out there, build up your audio portfolio, and invest in yourself by studying other material about game audio. When the end of next month rolls around, there’s a chance that you won’t have yet been signed on to a project even though you were taking all these right steps. In the moment, that would understandably feel super disappointing. What you might not realize though is that Person X you spoke to at the last Unity meet-up just referred you to Person Y who is going to reach out in a few weeks to ask you to do audio for their game because they like your portfolio. Sometimes attaining your goals just takes a little bit more time, so be persistent and keep at it and practicing until you get there (and then celebrate, set new goals, and repeat!).
Failure is just part of the process, and should be embraced. It is an illusion that many deem a bad thing and use as an excuse to give up, but our failures are where we can learn the most so we can grow our skills and develop ourselves into even stronger and more skilled people to do better the next time!
One of the BEST ways to stay on track with your practices and working towards your goals is to team up with a friend and get an accountability buddy (#accountabilibuddy). Ideally, find someone (it can help if they’re in your field or working towards similar goals, but it’s not necessary) with whom you feel comfortable talking to about yourself and your process, and set up an arrangement where you can meet up over coffee or Skype regularly.
What has worked really well for me is arranging a Skype call with my accountability buddy once every two weeks (I have also done once a week and that’s super helpful too!). We will share with each other: what we’re working on that week, what we’re struggling with/what challenges we faced this week, what we’re proud of this week, and what we’re planing on doing moving forward to bring us closer to meeting our goals. This is a great way to stay motivated and to keep each other in check so that you’re always moving closer to meeting your respective goals.
What’s cool about game audio work is that it’s fairly easy to track your progress. If your goal is to get better at composing orchestral mockups, then practicing writing a lot, and export your tracks. You can share your work with your accountabilibuddy each week, and over time you will be able to look back at the months of composing and see how far you’ve come.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. It’s totally okay and normal to feel stuck at times or feel down and question why it is you’re sticking with it. Be open with your accountability buddy about these feelings, because they can help remind you why the goals you set are important to you and help nudge you back on track.
If you don’t feel like meeting regularly this way, an alternative is to tell some friends what you’re up to and ask them to text or call you occasionally with an encouraging reminder to keep at the thing you’re working on.
Basically, when you set a goal, it is a really powerful motivator to tell a lot of people about it (if you’re feeling bold, you can make a super big declaration on Facebook or Twitter about it). By openly declaring what you are working on like this, something shifts inside of you, and now you have this perspective to look through every time you are faced with making a decision about getting closer to meeting your goals — is whatever it is you’re thinking about doing going to get you closer to your goal or farther from it? In other words, your priorities become a lot clearer at this point: is it more important to you that you sit and binge watch every episode of Arrow eating a gallon of ice cream with a spork, or will you take the 10 minutes you scheduled for the day to practice guitar/public speaking/working on a new composition/etc.?
Willpower is a great tool that can help you push through the tough times when you really don’t feel like picking up your guitar to practice, or when you just want to eat your ninth donut for the day. That’s great and can be super helpful, but if you’re constantly being faced with decisions that require a lot of willpower to get through, over time your willpower starts to fade and it gets easier to just fall back into your old habits.
Think of willpower like mana in an RPG: it’s a finite resource that can recharge over time, and certain spells (i.e. tasks) take up more willpower-mana than others. Knowing that we only have so much willpower a day, we can use it in a smart way to set us up for success so we’re not constantly draining our willpower meter. We want to start using willpower for the small things that take little effort to prepare us for later when faced with the big thing of deciding to work closer towards our goals.
For example, let’s say there’s a big networking event happening tonight that you scheduled for yourself to go to because you know it’ll allow you to make new friends that could be potential future collaborators. But after a long day of work, wouldn’t it just be easier to just stay home, eat pizza, and play Halo 5? While in some cases it might end up being more beneficial to change your plans and stay home to recharge (more about work/life balance, well-being, and happiness will be discussed in a future post in this series), let’s say for now you do have the social energy to go out and you know it would be a really beneficial event to attend. If you’re still in the early stages of your habit forming, this can sometimes be a hard thing to follow-through on, and would take a lot of willpower in that moment (which you might not have depending on what other decisions you had to make earlier in the day) to decide to go to the meet-up.
But let’s rewind a minute. Instead of trying to use up a lot of willpower in that moment, why don’t we use a tiny bit of willpower the night before when we learned about the event to make it easy for us later. When your friend told you about the meet-up and you plugged it into your calendar, you could then spend 5 minutes, using a tiny amount of willpower to do a few small things that will dramatically increase the likelihood of your going:
If I were in this scenario, I would lay out all the clothes I want to wear to the event the night before, place my business cards and notebook next to my clothes, arrange for a friend to pick me up so we can carpool (and listen to power metal covers of the Power Rangers theme song), and I might even go so far as to unplug and move my gaming consoles so that they don’t tempt me later. It becomes *much* easier the night of the event to decide to get up and go, since I’ve already done most of the work required in getting ready to get out the door to get there.
This strategy can be applied to all sorts of other habits you might wish to form. Want to practice guitar? Place your guitar in the middle of your hallway so you’re forced to walk past it later during your scheduled practice time. Want to wake up and start composing first thing in the morning? Open your DAW the night before so it’s the first thing you see when you turn on your computer in the morning. Want to stay more focused and get better about compulsively checking social media? Get set up with freedom.to and only check email during a pre-scheduled 30-minute window (or do what my buddy Akash does and unplug your router and hide it under a blanket).
This strategy of using willpower to do the small thing (that will make the big things easier) is a very effective way to further establish the new habits you’re working on building and maintain course towards your goals.
That is the end of this post on honing your art and staying on track as you march towards tackling your goals. In the next post, we’re going to dive into networking and how to find gigs!
Let me know in the comments, or send me an email, about what some of your goals are. Also, let me know some ways you help yourself stay on track as you work towards your goals! If you’ve tried chatting with an accountability buddy, I’d love to hear what your format of discussion looks like and how it’s helped you so far.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll chat to you again soon! *sideflips into the sunset*