Sound designer and composer Kerri Shak has shared some tips on how to prepare for becoming a sound designer and how to work in a team and follow creative direction as well as spoke about the importance of organizational systems in sound designer's workflows.
Kerri Shak, composer and sound designer
Hi, my name is Kerri and I’m a freelance audio wizard (a composer, dialogue editor, recording engineer, and sound designer).
I have experience in games, animation, commercials, and web content. Some of her credits include award-winning games such as The Artful Escape, Horizon Forbidden West, The Last of Us Part II, Aliens: Fireteam Elite, as well as major franchises such as, Star Wars: The Old Republic – Legacy of the Sith, Call of Duty: Mobile, and Final Fantasy Brave Exvius: War of the Visions. My work on Virtual Pet Oppression Simulator 2022 won the team Best Audio for Team Dogpit’s Virtual Pet Game Jam.
Today I want to walk you through my career to offer some insights into how I got into audio, how I approach my work, and what I think are good approaches for someone trying to break into the industry for the first time. I started out in college composing music for films and working on several animated shorts. I ended up developing a passion for audio in video games along the way.
I have worked on several indie games as a composer and sound designer, and have even branched into voice-over recording and editing, which led to my current role as a recording engineer and dialogue editor for a wide variety of games and franchises. For me, getting into the industry hasn’t been a straight path, and my hope is that I can give you some insight to prepare you for starting your own career. Here are a few tips and tricks that I’ve learned along the way.
When I was starting off, I found the vast amount of software and equipment available really overwhelming. It felt like I needed to buy everything in the world at once to get a job anywhere.
Over the years, I've learned that it wasn’t as scary as it seems. You can easily get started on your own computer with a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). I personally like to use both Pro Tools and Logic Pro X, but I suggest using one that you are the most comfortable with. Other DAWs include Reaper, Digital Performer, Ableton Live, and Cubase. You can also use free trials to test out a few before making a decision.
The same goes for sample libraries and plugins. There are a bunch of great resources out there that have a lot to offer, but they all require a learning curve and chances are you’re not going to learn them all at once. I think it’s more effective to start learning with the free resources that you have (usually the ones that come with the DAW), trying out free trials, or investing in just a handful of programs.
Depending on what you want to focus on, that might narrow down which programs you want to try out. That way there’s less chance of feeling overwhelmed and getting started seems less daunting. Once you have a good understanding of what you’re working with, you can start branching out and adding to your skillset with more resources.
Working in a Team and Following Creative Direction
As someone who is very shy, especially when it comes to showcasing my own work, being in a team was a little daunting. But after the initial state of panic, it is actually a lot of fun since everyone has their own specific skill set which then comes together to create something amazing.
As a composer and sound designer, it’s my responsibility to determine the sonic environment based off of the creative brief, concept art, and/or music references. To get started, I like to create a few different demos to share with the team before finalizing a direction to work towards. These demos are usually very simple but tend to vary in instrumentation, musical themes, genres, etc. Having a wide range is helpful since it gives a quick glimpse into what types of sounds may work or not, or sometimes the team will even like a combination of two different demos.
One important thing that I learned while working in the game audio field is to not take things personally. Usually, there is a creative director that is leading everyone on a specific vision. Of course, this is a collaborative process, but there can also be times when you might not always agree on everything. Game audio has a very fast workflow, so it’s important to be able to adapt if something isn’t working or be willing to make changes or revisions to fit someone else’s vision.
Having said that, if you strongly believe in something that you created and feel like it’s a perfect fit for the game environment, don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. If you take the time to explain the idea, there is a possibility that the rest of the team will see where you’re coming from and change their perspective.
But also don’t get bitter if they still want you to change it in the end. At least you tried.
Organization and Time Management
I think that having a good organizational system is the first step to success. Since things are constantly changing, it’s important to be able to track down previous demos or revisions, especially if the creative director ends up liking a previous version better. At the beginning of the project, it is also helpful to plan out the entire process, including considering how many levels there are and how many tracks are needed as well as taking into account an assets list for sound design and a timeline (if there are any).
Working as a dialogue editor and recording engineer, sometimes we have to handle scripts with hundreds, even thousands, of lines all corresponding to a specific filename, so organization is key. Diving into my first game jam experience, I used the organizational and management skills that I learned from this technical job. Besides having an audio assets list, I like to date my work so that they’re organized chronologically, as well as label the versions if I am revising audio assets.
Time management is extremely important in order to meet deadlines while also creating something that is up to your standards. I prefer to start small and expand if there is extra time available. That way you will at least have a finished product, instead of spreading yourself too thin and not completing anything by the deadline. For example, game jams have a relatively short timeline – the few I participated in lasted for 2 weeks so I set some goals to achieve for me to feel like it was complete by the end.
The goals that I usually focus on are that for music I want it to loop seamlessly and that it should be long enough so it doesn’t sound repetitive. For the sake of time, I would narrow down the instrumentation, only adding to it later if I thought it was necessary. Achieving a decently lengthed piece can also be as simple as switching the voicing for the melody so it alternates between various instruments.
For sound design, I would start with the main ones that would be the most occurring during gameplay, then add the auxiliary ones if there’s still time. One thing that I learned while working on a game jam, is that the music and sound design sometimes have to complement each other.
In Virtual Pet Oppression Simulator 2022, there is an SFX that is triggered when the pet has to sing for the owner, so, while working on the game, I made sure that the melody the pet was singing was in the same key as the gameplay music so that it wouldn’t sound dissonant. I also kept this in mind when working on Seeds of Revolution and even played all the SFX on top of the in-game music track to make sure that it sounded good together.
I think many people, myself included, struggle with calling something "complete" and setting it out into the world. I personally have a ton of half-finished projects that have yet to see the light of day, so joining game jams was my way of getting myself to actually finish something since there was a deadline and I was working on a team.
Setting deadlines and establishing goals at the beginning of the game jam allowed me to feel confident in calling it complete. It’s also very fulfilling when you finally finish working on a project and I tend to get some more creative momentum that way to work on new things.
Bonus: Understanding Implementation
Nowadays, it seems like the norm for audio peeps to also have knowledge about audio implementation. Though I have worked on projects where the programmer is able to slot the audio in the correct locations, being able to implement it yourself gives you the ability to add more adaptive details to in-game audio.
The two platforms used are called Wwise and FMOD. I think it’s more useful for sound designers to know about implementation since a lot of jobs tend to require it but for composers, it’s also a way to level up their skills. For example, instead of having a simple looped track for the entire game, you can create layers that are triggered during certain events, which makes the music more adaptive and interactive in gameplay.