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Multimedia Sound Workers

The Job

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, on a smartphone, 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 complement 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 may 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 Proving Ground incorporates music from many well-known bands such as Foo Fighters, Rolling Stones, Beastie Boys, and The Clash, among others. 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.

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