David Nazario, Video Game Sound Designer, on working on Five Major AAA Titles, Sound Design Processes, & Advancing Technology's Impact on the Field.
February 5, 2016
I'm originally from the East Coast. Spent most of my life living in Hershey, Pennsylvania and then moved out here to Los Angeles about 6 years ago to work in the video game industry as a Sound Designer.
Since then I've worked on 5 major AAA titles, including Resistance 3, Sunset Overdrive, and the Ratchet & Clank reboot for the PS4.
First Job in the Entertainment/Game Industry
My first paid game industry job was as an intern for Insomniac Games back in 2009.
I was majoring in Music Recording Technology in college but I was really interested in getting a job as a Sound Designer with a game company.
So, I went out to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco and walked around the career floor that they had and went booth to booth handing out my resume and asking about any internship opportunities that they had.
When I got to the Insomniac booth, I told one of the HR reps there about my interest in an internship with their Audio Department and they introduced me to the Audio Lead there.
We talked for a bit and he told me that they had never had an Audio Intern before but thought that it would be a good idea to explore.
So, he took my resume and said that he would get back to me sometime after the conference.
Well, a couple months go by and I don't hear anything and it's getting close to the end of the Spring semester. If I didn't have an internship lined up before the summer, I would have had to wait till the next spring or summer to do one.
Unfortunately, the Audio Lead there never gave me his contact information so I had to find another way of tracking him down.
I decided to go through all of the game industry contacts that I had made from the last couple of years and finally found one who worked for Sony Computer Entertainment of America.
I sent him an email asking him if he knew the Audio Lead at Insomniac Games. He said that he did and gave me his email address (with the Audio Lead's permission, of course).
After sending the Insomniac Audio Lead an email re-enquiring about the internship possibility, he replied and said that they'd be giving me a call soon.
Later that week I got a call from the Audio Director and he did a short interview with me over the phone. Long story short, they offer me a position as their first Audio Intern and I end up packing my things into my car and driving from Pennsylvania to Southern California.
I worked there for the whole summer doing various audio task for the game Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time.
I get a lot of my inspiration from movies and other video games.
Whenever I hear a sound that I like or have never heard before, I try to deconstruct it and see if I can recreate the process.
I don't think nearly enough credit is given for a lot of the really unique and difficult to create sounds that people hear in games, film, or TV.
I also get a lot of inspiration from other Sound Designers that I work with.
One of the great things about being at a company with a generously sized audio team is getting to work with people who have very different styles of designing sounds than you do.
The more people I work with, the more tips, tricks, and perspectives I pick up and can apply to my own work flow.
Why Game Sound Design?
What makes my profession really appealing is the fact that my job incorporates the three things that I'm really passionate about; technology, sound, and creativity.
Also, the fact that it has to do with video games is a definite plus. I've always been a huge gamer.
My parents bought me my first game console when I was very young, which was the original Nintendo Game Boy and I've been hooked ever since.
I think what inspires me to continue working in this industry is the fact that it is continuously evolving.
Just looking at how far video games have come since Pong came out for the Atari in 1972 is really amazing.
The new tech that I'm really excited about currently are virtual reality headsets like the ones being developed by Oculus and Sony.
I think that they will definitely have a big effect on how games are made; especially audio.
My duties for all of those games has been pretty much the same.
The creation and implementation of audio assets, game engine debugging, the occasional temp VO recording, creating reverb presets and covering interiors and exteriors with volumes that trigger them, etc.
As for types of sounds that I created, they range from simple cloth foley for characters running and walking to more advanced sounds like sci-fi weapons and abilities.
That's another great thing about working on games; you always get to work on and make really cool and interesting sounds for things that most Sound Designers don't normally get to work on.
Impact of Technology
For me, it's hard to say. I've only been in the industry for 6 years now and in terms of game consoles, that's not even an average lifetime, which is normally 10 years.
Luckily, I did get to see the jump from the PS3 and Xbox 360 to the current gen consoles, the PS4 and Xbox One, and it's been really cool to see how advancements in the technology of consoles can allow for you to do more in terms of how much audio and the quality of that audio can be fit into a game.
The downside of that is that there is now more work to do to make a high quality game but the amount of time to make that game hasn't really changed.
So, then it becomes an exercise in looking at all the new things that you can do with a new console and finding a way to streamline your process of creation, integration, and polish.
This constant change and improvement in game technology means that I'll pretty much be in a state of constant learning and problem solving.
Sound Design Process
First, I'll take a look at what it is I'm designing sounds for either in game or in a rendered video that the gameplay or animation team sends to me.
I do this just to get an idea of what type of sounds I will need to create the end product.
Then I was go into my gathering phase.
This is basically just me searching through my sound libraries for the sounds that I'll need to layer together to get the overall sound that I'm looking for.
I also make sure that I find samples that there are multiple versions of; not just one sample.
This is one of the big things that separates video game sound designers from film or TV sound designers.
When we create sounds, we have to create 5 or 6 (or more) slightly different versions of them.
This is because the player will be able to trigger some of these sounds over and over again and we don't want the player to be taken out of the experience by noticing that they are just hearing the same exact sound over and over again.
We can also get greater variety out of the same group of sounds by adding random volume and pitch variance that is controlled by the audio engine.
Once I have all the sounds that I want to use, I will cut the samples that I want and layer them in either ProTools or Nuendo.
Once I have the samples mixed and layered in a way that I like, I will export or bounce each version down to a singular mono or stereo file.
Then I will drop the files into Sony Sound Forge and trim off any excess noise or silence in the file and save them out again.
Finally, once all of that is done, I will take the files and add them to the into the game via the audio engine.
I think the best piece of advice that I can give to anyone wanting to get into the game industry is to network like crazy!
Go to any game industry event you can go to and speak to everyone you can; and not just people specific to your field either.
If you are an audio guy, talk to programmers, artists, and animators.
They will always have their own side projects that they want to do and will more than likely be in need of a Sound Designer.
Sure, those side projects may not pay necessarily if the game doesn't sell well but it's a great thing to add to your portfolio if you are still looking to get your foot in the door.
Networking is the one thing that has consistently allowed me to continue working in this industry.
Of course, you do need to have the skills necessary to do the job you are hired for but those skills won't do you any good if you don't have people to show them off to.
Ultimate Professional Goal
Still not sure what my ultimate end goal at the moment is. I do know that I want to make it to a Senior Sound Designer position at a game company. I'm just not entirely sure yet if I want to be an Audio Director.
Perhaps later on down the line when I've been in the industry long enough to need a change of pace or feel that I know enough to be ready to take on that level of responsibility I'll go for that role but for now, I'm just going to continue making my way to earning the title of Senior Sound Designer.
I think one of the major challenges that I've had to overcome is finding the time to experiment with different methods of creating sounds while still getting my work done on time.
There's usually more work to do than there is time to complete it all so every game is a race to the finish line.
Also, I never really went to college for sound design. I'm a musician with a musical education focused on recording engineering that decided to become a sound designer for video games.
So, while a lot of what I learned about music is applicable to what I do at my job, there was still this lack of experience at creating audio that would be used as sound effects as opposed to music.
This required me to do a lot of experimentation outside of work just to get the hang of making things sound the way that I expected to sound as well as making them sound how my Audio Lead and Director expect them to sound.
Typical Day at Work
I can't really say that I have a typical day at work. Every day tends to change based on where I am in the process of creating a group of sounds and then implementing them.
One week I could be creating a set of ambience loops for a level and the next I could be making melee sounds for a set of animations where some soldiers are getting beat up by the player.
Then there are days where I don't do any sound effects creation at all.
Those days I'll be either adding sound trigger volumes all over a level or debugging an issue where tools aren't working the way we expect them to.
I think that's part of the reason why I intend on continuing to work in the video game industry for as long as I'm able to; because my days are never really the same thing over and over again.
Tech Specs - Tools of the Trade
In terms of audio software, I use Sony Sound Forge for editing and cutting samples, ProTools or Nuendo for layering and exporting my samples, and a whole bunch of different plug-ins for sound processing.
For game and audio engines, that will vary depending on what company I am working for at the time.
Most AAA game studios will either have their own proprietary game engine that they develop in house to create their games or they will license their engine from a third party developer like Epic's Unreal Engine or Valve's Source Engine.
Hardware-wise, I usually keep a ZOOM H6portable recording unit with me as well as a Rode NTG-2shotgun microphone with a boom pole for most of my field recording needs.
I'd say that social media has definitely had a big impact on my career.
It's been great for networking and connecting with other professionals in my field.
I also use to search for new contract opportunities when the need arises by either contacting the HR rep directly or by looking at the job postings that come up on LinkedIn.
There are also a lot of great Facebook groups out there where you can ask for help with a particular problem or software issue.
You basically have all of these industry professionals at your fingertips that are willing to answer your questions and give you advice.
It's definitely something that a lot more game audio professionals should take advantage of.
Favorite Moments in the Entertainment/Game Industry
The first time someone recognized the game I had worked on that was on my shirt while I was walking around a Best Buy. One of the games that I had worked on didn't sell that great and I was feeling pretty bummed about it.
Then one day I was walking around a Best Buy and someone comes up to me and goes, "Hey, awesome shirt! Loved that game!"
That definitely was a great feeling.
Getting to meet a bunch of fans at an Insomniac Games fan appreciation event. It was just such a cool thing to see a whole bunch of people show up to play a demo of the game you've been working on and then getting to sign posters and game covers.
Made me feel kinda like a rockstar.
When I first composed a small looping piece of music for a game and later found it on YouTube as a fan video.
Getting to attend the Microsoft Press Event at E3 2014 dressed up as a character from Sunset Overdrive and arriving on a decked out school bus that with a bunch of my coworkers.
They even had a red carpet area that we all got our pictures taken at.
What's something most people don't know about your career?
One thing that I'd like people to know about my job that most people don't seem to know about is how long it takes to actually make a big budget video game.
Most people think it takes a couple months to a year to fully conceptualize and develop a video game but it usually takes much, much longer.
All of the games that I've worked on so far took about two years or more to develop.
And there's a lot of late nights too.
Games can be a labor of love a lot of times, which can make it all the more discouraging when you see people online complain about the $60 price tag that comes with newly released big budget games saying things like, "This game is just not worth the price" and "I'll wait till it goes on sale."
Makes us game developers feel like they just don't know how much work and money actually goes into one of these games.
All I can really say about what I'm currently working on is that it's a Titanfall related game.
Like I mentioned before though, one current trend in the game industry that I'm really excited about is rise of virtual reality headsets.
I'm looking forward to working on one someday.
Well, my coworkers at Respawn are really good about keeping lists of tasks on spreadsheets and text documents. I mostly use those to keep track of what things there are still left to do on my plate.
We also use a great bug tracking system to make sure things that are not functioning correctly get fixed in a timely manner.
I also have my own MS Word document that I keep open at all times to cross things off my list.
I went to Lebanon Valley Collegeand majored in Music Recording Technology, but while I was there I also focused on teaching myself about video game sound design in my spare time, which I didn't have a lot of unfortunately.
Still, I think a good background in the recording arts and music will help someone go a far way in the game audio industry.
Having some knowledge of coding will definitely go a long way too.
Any coding language will do really.
It's more about understanding how lines of code are read and being able to somewhat follow where each line leads than understanding a singular language completely.
Though knowing how to code in a particular language doesn't hurt at all.
If I were to give a shout out to anyone, it would have to be all my former audio team coworkers at Insomniac Games.
They really helped out with getting my start in the video game industry and taught me a lot about sound design.