How to break into the professional audio industry – Find and keep your first video game jobs and recording studio jobs.
If you are reading this then you are likely aware of how difficult it can be to get your start as a professional audio engineer. You might be approaching the end of your college career and realizing the high level of competition and small amount of entry positions posted online for audio work. I know how it feels because that was me back in 2005 as I was graduating college in Denver, CO with almost no contacts in the industry. However, after a ton of hard work, and lots of great advice from helpful professionals, I eventually made it into the industry. Since graduating, I have worked at multiple world class facilities like LucasArts, Disney, Playful (Oculus Rift VR Launch Title), Naughty Dog, Retro, EA, Gl33k and more.
I’m now passing on the valuable knowledge that I had to learn the hard way in this post! Whether you want to work in recording studios or are a sound designer and composer looking for video game jobs, breaking in takes more than just talent and dreams. In this post I’ll give you a lot of tips on how to get your big break and stay employed once you do.
Making a plan
The first and most important step is to make a plan. Without a plan you will waste valuable time doing things that won’t get you where you want to be. Start by making a five, two, and one year plan. Be sure to start with big long term goals in mind.
Go ahead and start it now! I’ll wait. Once you know the big picture of what you want to achieve, the short term planning becomes much easier. Then you will have a better idea of what you’ll have to do to achieve your dreams. Once you have the plan written out you just need to make sure that everything you do in life leads you to achieve those goals. If they don’t fit in the plan then they very likely are a waste of your professional time. Here’s an example of what you might put into your plan.
- Recording Engineer plan example.
- 5 year
- 1. Become a Staff Recording Engineer at a well known studio.
- 2 year
- 1. Intern or assist at a reputable local studio.
- 1 year
- 1. Record a few bands.
- 2. Improve knowledge on mixing, microphones and other gear.
- 3. Take some classes on DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) and audio engineering skills.
- 4. Make a great sounding demo reel for clients and studios.
- Sound Designer looking for video game jobs plan example.
- 5 year
- 1. Become a lead sound designer at a reputable game studio.
- 2 year
- 1. Get credit on a well known game mod or small developer project.
- 2. Continue to update your resume and develop contacts.
- 1 year
- 1. Get experience making sounds for games using game specific tools.
- 2. Begin networking and start visiting game developer conferences.
- 3. Make a resume and demo reel
Solving The “Experience” Paradox.
Now that you have a plan you just need to get the ball rolling There is a problem though: In order to get a job in the industry you need experience, but to get experience you need a job. This makes it seem like there is a huge wall between you and your goals. Most jobs have this dilemma and game industry jobs are no exception! Don’t worry, there are ways around this.
One solution is to buy some audio gear and teach yourself how to do things. Quality DAWs are cheaper every day. Many professional game tools, such as Wwise, are available for a free trial. There are numerous sources of tutorials online that cover all of these subjects. I believe that the best learning tool is experience. By doing things on your own you can learn how things work in a pressure free environment. Here are some recommendations of common tools and skills you should have.
Audio Engineer Tools: ProTools (Cubase, Sonar, and Logic are also great, but less common in pro studios), digital plug-ins, outboard gear (compressors, EQ, preamps, signal path, consoles), microphones, Mac Computers (much more common than PCs).
Audio Engineer Skills: Mixing in the box and on consoles, how to properly use microphones, basic music theory knowledge, recording and dealing with bands, cable wrapping (over/under FTW), and coffee making (Yes, I’m serious).
Game Industry Sound Designer Tools: Wwise (or another game sound engine such as FMOD), Unreal Ed (or another similar game engine like Crysis), Unity (Very popular game engine for mobile developers), Sound Forge or Peak for batch processing (I’m a much bigger fan of sound forge), SoundMiner or another sound library management tool like Basehead, Perforce source control, Native Instruments Komplete, Waves plug-ins and other creative tools like SoundToys and GRM tools, multitrack editing software like ProTools, Cubase, Sonar or Logic, MAC and PC computers.
Game industry sound designer skills: How to integrate sounds into a game, how to use game building tools like Unreal Ed (3dBuzz.com has some great free tutorials on this), quickly editing and batch processing lots of files at a time, memory management/limitations of current platforms, capturing gameplay (Fraps or other capture devices), how to set up a ProTools session with video capture of game-play and bounce out sounds to put into your game.
While you are getting your start you need to develop your resume. Formatting is very important to a good resume. A well formatted resume ensures your employer you pay attention to detail. Sloppy resumes show that you can’t even take a simple task seriously.
Find some resumes online and get a feel for what they should look like. If you have access to professionals who look at resumes then ask them for help as you set yours up. It will take years to get meaningful experience. Until then, fill the resume with every little audio related thing you have done. This includes albums you have worked on, assisting on things, personal projects, goals, skills, and tools you are familiar with. Update your resume each time you progress through your goals.
Leave out anything that is totally unrelated, like restaurants, unless you had a management position and you have nothing else to put. As you progress your resume will start to fill itself out. Better resumes will open up more options to you in your career. Eventually you will look at your resume and wonder why it was so hard to get it started. Keep your eye on the prize and you will get there.
Your demo reel is vital to get your big break. A demo reel is just a collection of works by a person. Though the term originally comes from having your work on reel to reel tape, the colloquialism is still used today. It will show employers your skills. In this digital age it is important to have both your demo reel and resume online. Recruiters meet hundreds of audio people at every convention so it is important to have an easy to find and well organized demo reel.
Now that you have some skills you can put together your best work into a demo. Remember that your demo reel needs to demonstrate the one skill that the job requires. If you want to be a sound designer, then it’s best to have video that only has an SFX stem. No one likes to hear music on a foley demo. Similarly, no one wants to hear explosion SFX over a music demo. Keep it short and sweet.
I have learned that three video demos are enough. However, if you only have one video that is professional don’t put two other videos on your reel just as filler. Everything on your demo needs to be of the highest quality you can produce. Try finding a movie clip online, stripping out all the sound, and redoing it in your programs. Start with video that is between 30 seconds and one minute. Don’t pick a five minute video unless you have time to really do all five minutes at the best of your abilities. I don’t know any audio leads who have five minutes to spare anyway, so just focus on getting 1-2 SOLID minutes that demonstrate your skills. Your demo reel needs to be easy to navigate and mastered well. If it isn’t organized it makes you seem unprofessional.
Be sure to mention what work you actually did on each part of your demo reel. Well organized reels also show that you can pay attention to detail so make the demo a seamless experience. Keep your demo online in a common format like Quicktime H264. Display the link to your website on your resume. Having a few DVD copies of your demo reel is also useful, but many people I know prefer to find your work on the internet for convenience. Vimeo is the best site for professional demos in my opinion because it defaults to high fidelity, but Youtube has far more searches so either one is fine.
In the games industry, if you get a break you may get asked to make a specific demo for a studio. They will send you a video and you will have a chance to prove your talents. MAKE SURE YOU TAKE ALL THE TIME THEY GIVE YOU AND DO IT RIGHT! By this I mean you should borrow or rent the best audio gear you can find to work on it. Mix it in a well tuned room and on headphones. Get feedback from other audio people before you send it off.
This could be your big chance and it’s worth putting other things aside to get it done. You will only get one shot at these “auditions” so you need to make sure you do your best work. These studios won’t cut you a break just because you only own cheap gear or a lack of free time. Do whatever it takes to make this sound AMAZING. Also, finishing it quickly doesn’t earn you any extra points. Be sure to use all the time they give you to polish your work.
Immerse yourself in your trade
Subscribe to online audio forums, websites and trade magazines. Make friends in the audio profession who are starting out just like you. Buy gear to use at home for practice. Act like the person you want to become. Here are a few of my favorite online sources.
- The most accurate and unbiased magazine about audio gear IMHO. It’s free so go subscribe now!
- Great place for jobs, tutorials, and anything else game related. This is a great place to find mods and other projects you can work on to build your skills.
- Forum all about professional audio gear.
- Subscribe to their informative emails about what is happening in the music industry.
- Another good source for information about games. They have daily emails.
- A great source for beginning audio engineers. It’s focus is on audio for games and the potential for networking here is great. A few of it’s members gave me some much appreciated advice on how to get my start.
Attitude is Everything
Positive attitudes can be more important than talent. I believe this now more than ever. If you are a positive person who gets the job done you will be more likely to get a good job and recommendations. Think about it. Would you rather hire a super talented jerk who is difficult to work with, or a person of average talent that is uplifting and fun to be around. I know that I’d prefer to work with people that make every day a fun experience. Attitudes and work ethics can be infectious whether they are negative or positive.
You should know that word travels very quickly in these tight knit industries. By being a positive and passionate person your attitude will help you get started in the industry. It will also improve your reputation and help you get work in the future. So when you are starting in the industry give a lot of thought to how you want to be thought of throughout your career. Who wants to be a mean anti-social jerk anyway? What better time to change your attitude than now while you get your start. Besides, developing a positive successful attitude will do wonders for your personal life as well. :)
Where to start – Persistence is paramount
If you already have a basic knowledge of these tools then it’s time to get more professional experience. I recommend internships for people wanting to work in studios. If you want to work in games you should work on mods or other projects for free. Almost all recording studios are in need of interns or people to help out. You may need to contact them multiple times to prove you are interested. The best studios get hundreds of applications a month to be interns. You have to stand out from the crowd by proving your determination to succeed, doing good work, remembering that you are a subordinate and showing professionalism.
College experience helps you get in the door, but isn’t necessary. It is more important to know the profession and have a positive attitude. You can find game audio positions on Gamasutra.com. This site has lots of projects looking for sound designers for small projects. Mod communities exist for many games, and they are a great way to learn how things work.
Keep in mind that You WILL have to do some free grunt work for a while until you build up a resume! The tasks you do at this stage of things will be the work other people don’t want to do. Accepting this becomes easier if you keep your eye on the prize. Sweeping floors, cleaning up after sessions, and making coffee become daily tasks. By demonstrating your thirst for knowledge and success you will show prospective employers how valuable you are. You will also learn a lot of very important things along the way. I was an unpaid intern about 8 months at a few places early on in my career. I learned how to work with clients, how to act as an intern, how to run professional studio sessions, and other things that have formed how I work today. Remember, EVERYBODY had to start somewhere!
College for the entertainment industry – Necessary or a waste of time?
College is expensive, a lot of work, and a lot of time. So, is it a necessary step in achieving success in as an audio person? Now that I’ve been in the industry for a while I can safely say that success isn’t dependent on college experience. However, college can be a very good at opening doors to your future. I attended two colleges for music related careers and came out with two degrees.
After all that effort I only received brief recognition of my college experienced. No one has ever checked into my grades or coursework. What I gained from my college education mostly came from connections, a sponsored internship, and obviously the classwork that improved my skills. Many internships require college so if you skip education then you are at a disadvantage over those that haven’t.
College also puts you in touch with like minded people who can teach you more than any class. Developing these contacts can get you work and expand your skill sets much more than college classes will. Most of the audio professionals I know have gone to college for their trade. Many of them didn’t graduate. I recommend at least starting college to build contacts and get an internship. It will make things much easier on you in the long run. Having a degree does look better on a resume than not having one. However, having a ton of professional experience seems far more important than college in the audio industry.
Networking and Interviews
Conferences, College, Classes, Facebook, LinkedIn, Online Audio Forums and musician friends are all good to use for networking. Keep a list of every contact you have in Outlook, Gmail, or other organized manner. Make sure you back-up this list. It may very well hold the name of the one person willing to give you your big break.
Conferences are the best places to develop professional contacts in the games industry. You should really invest your time and money to go to GDC. If you can’t afford it, they take volunteers in order to earn a free badge through working the conference!
First, warm up by talking to some people about audio. I also recommend a practice interview with a friend. This way you will be socially loose and ready to go. Now that you have your resume, demo reel, and a knowledge of the industry you can really make things happen.
Go to each recruiters booth and ask if they have position open for a sound designer. If they do then keep asking questions and be confident. Express your interest and passion for game audio. Give them your resume and a DVD of your demo reel. Having any sort of game experience on your resume immediately puts you ahead of every other audio person who isn’t prepared.
If they don’t have any positions you should find out if they ever hire external contractors or only use internal sound designers. Either way, be sure to get their contact info, write notes on their details, and follow up about a week later. If they have a position and are considering you for a position make sure you are persistent. Show them that you really want the work and are interested in the position. Don’t be too pushy, but be sure to keep up on all leads for a position.
At first you won’t get any offers, but as your resume improves and you get more confident the offers will come much easier. If you keep working hard and building everything I’ve described you’ll have a huge list of professional contacts all willing to help you get work. At this point it becomes more about managing your professional contacts than going to recruiting booths.
Now that you are out there developing professional contacts with the necessary experience you will eventually get interviewed. Interviews really come down to answering one question: Are you the best overall person for this position on this team at this time. You need to communicate that you are this person early in the interview for them to know it. To be this person you need the proper work history, attitude, and skills to do the job.
Don’t be afraid of talking yourself up. I’ve botched interviews in the past because I was afraid to brag about my own talents. Don’t come off cocky, just be confident of your abilities and assure them that you can handle the position.
Do your research on the company you are interviewing for. By doing your homework you will appear more interested in the position and come off looking like a better prospective hire. Have a list of questions for them based on your research. Showing up prepared with a pencil, paper and pre-written questions makes you look very prepared and organized. You can ask them questions about their games, life/work balance, tools and workflows.
You should also ask for more specifics about the position and what it is like to work for the company. Remember to be personable, honest, and confident. Definitely set up some practice interviews with friends before you go to the real interview. Think up what they may ask you and have some responses ready. If you do all this you will greatly improve your chances of getting the position when you get your big chance!
You may be wondering why I’m giving all of this advice for free. Well, I want to help people get their start just like some audio professionals helped me when I was starting out. Now that you are armed with more knowledge on how to get your start, you are well on your way to becoming an audio professional. It starts as an uphill battle, but you can learn to enjoy the challenge. Keep focused on your long term goals and you will achieve them in no time.
Remember, I had no connections in the audio industry in 2004 and very little experience. Through tons of networking, hard work, persistence, and dedication I’ve managed to work with Sony, EA, LucasArts, Disney, and many more studio doing professional audio work. Never stop believing that it is achievable and you will find a way to break in!
Please post a comment if this helps you at all. I’d love to hear about your successes, trials, failures, and any other feedback you have on this post. Thanks for coming by. I hope this helps give you the confidence to achieve your dreams. If it does, feel free to pay me back by buying me a nice Belgium beer at a game or audio conference. More importantly, pass your knowledge on to those around you to help build a better audio community. Who knows, one of you may end up being my boss someday!
Thanks for visiting the Aaron Brown Sound blog! Come back soon for more posts about video game audio, audio engineering, sound design, composing and all other things relating to being an audio professional
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