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Interview with Composer & Founder of GameSoundCon, Brian Schmidt

Sam Hughes speaks to composer Brian Schmidt!

Brian is also the founder and creator of GameSoundCon. The 2008 recipient of the Game Audio Network Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Brian has been creating game music, sounds and cutting edge game sound technology since 1987. With a credit list of over 130 games and a client list including Zynga, Sony, Electronic Arts, Capcom, Sega, Microsoft, Data East, Namco, SounDelux and many others Brian has used his combined expertise and experience in music composition, sound design and his deep technical knowledge to change the landscape of the game audio industry. Brian is a frequent and in-demand speaker on the creative, technical and business aspects of game audio, having given literally hundreds of educational and inspirational talks at conferences all over the world. Events such as the Game Developers Conference, Microsoft’s Gamefest, Sega Devcon, the Audio Engineering Society Conference and esteemed institutions such as Yale University, Northwestern University, and Digipen have invited Brian to share his knowledge and insight into the industry.

 

Thanks very much for joining us Brian; it’s a pleasure to have you!

Thank you very much for having me!

 

Now before we discuss GameSoundCon 2015, tell us a bit about yourself and your journey into game audio?

In 1987, I heard about a job opening at Williams Electronic Games (which later became Midway) writing music and doing sound effects for pinball machines. They needed someone who could write music as well as do assembly language programming, which at the time was required to create sound effects and run the music system. I was finishing up my Masters in Computer Music at Northwestern University at the time, and although I hadn’t done much composition, I thought that sounded like a dream job—I’d been playing pinball all my life, and now here was a chance to combine music and technology and pinball, and make a living at it.  After my interview, they asked me if I wanted to play their newest, unreleased pin (F14 Tomcat), and of course I jumped at the chance. Later, I discovered that the fact I was a really good pinball player was definitely a factor in my landing that job. I spent many late evenings simply playing pinball in the company cafeteria, happy to not have to be putting quarters in to play.

Speaking of pinball, I’m actually just finishing composing the score for my first pinball machine since 1998, Stern’s Game of Thrones pinball, so I’m finding myself back at my roots and having a blast.

 

What would you say has been your proudest moment in your career so far?

That’s probably when I was first told that The Pixies had decided to record and release some game music I had written, the theme for the original NARC video game. That really felt like a validation of “hey, maybe I’m not so bad at this composing thing.”

On the tech side, there was one other, during development of the original Xbox. Bill was doing a day tour of the whole team-what progress was, how things were going, etc. For audio, we showed him a semi-working demo of real-time digital surround sound—at the time, that had never been done in games.  We had a helicopter move under controller control, and because of some bugs, the audio was still dropping out, etc.  At the end of the day, he addressed the entire Xbox team, and someone asked him “What was the coolest thing you saw today?”  He grabbed his chin for a few moments, and said “I think it was the audio stuff,” and I suddenly felt 200 pairs of eyeballs looking at me and my team.

 

Awesome, how about the most challenging moment?

When I first started at Xbox I was faced with the question “so, what should a ‘next gen” game audio system be, anyway.”  That whole process of going from napkin sketch designs to shipping the console in 2 years, including getting the deal with Dolby done for real-time digital surround in games, and a last minute scramble to create an 8 second boot sound with only 25k of memory was simultaneously challenging and exhilarating.

 

So throughout all your years in the industry what big changes have you noticed?

There have been two seismic changes since I started working in game music and sound.  The first occurred when PS2 and later the original Xbox launched.  That was when games started shipping on DVD’s, which really marked the end of “chip tune” music for games.  Prior to that, most game music was still done by small synthesizer chips embedded in the game systems—even in CD-based systems like the original Playstation (and its rival, the Sega Saturn), most music was done using the synthesizer chips; CD’s, for the most part, were too small to be able to store all the music for many games.  But with DVD’s, game music went from being a fairly niche skill—making music with synth ships–  to “anything you can do with a full studio and a full orchestra,” and the industry hasn’t looked back (much J).

The other of course is the advent of mobile and casual gaming. This created literally thousands of new jobs for composers and sound designers, to the point where just a couple weeks ago, msn.com reported that over the past decade, the 2nd fastest growing job category in the U.S. was “Composer.” (http://www.gamesoundcon.com/#!MSN-says-Composer-2nd-fast-growing-job-in-us-We-figured-out-why/c19u6/55fb53cc0cf25fa7fe0f7ea0)

Casual and mobile also broadened the types of music typically associated with ‘games.’  Game composers need to be very versatile, because they might be called on to compose epic battle music one day and ‘cutsey pet’ music the next.  Combine that need with the dramatic increase in the quality of sample libraries and inexpensive DAWs, and there is some seriously great music being created for mobile.

 

Do you have an idea on where the audio side of the games industry is headed?

I think we’re still catching up with our capabilities.  By that, I mean that for a while now, game audio’s main bottlenecks haven’t been so much technical as they are workflow and pipeline; we are capable of doing many things but they are inefficient and time consuming to do and that hurts creativity.  Automating those tasks and improving our iteration times within the rest of the game environment and game engines will improve.  We’re getting there (Middleware has certainly helped as have game engines like Unity and UE4), but if you compare the process of getting a sound into a film (from idea to ‘implemented’) with the same process in games, it’s night and day.

That said, there are some complex issues that still need to be solved—modelling complex environments, dealing with sound in open world situations come to mind.

Creatively at long last, we may see an increase in hybrid scores; rich live-recorded beds combined with sampler technology to give us the best of both worlds—the production values of live musicians plus the greater musical responsiveness to game play that real-time synthesis gives you.

 

VR is a big topic right now, do you believe it is a long term feature?

That’s the (literally) $2B question.  Straight-up VR (fully immersive, sense blocking) has some pretty steep hurdles it needs to overcome; motion sickness issues, the fact that you’re cutting yourself off so completely (people joke about kids being lost in their cell phones on dates and at the dinner table, VR puts that on steroids).  Of course there is huge potential, but it’s hard to see people in general becoming quite as comfortable with it without a lot of work that goes beyond putting pixels on a screen in front of your face.  AR has huge potential as well, and I think in some ways that’s the overlooked orphan.  But both VR and AR will be significant delivery systems for the foreseeable future.

From an audio perspective, VR and AR are hugely exciting, of course. It became clear early on that visuals alone cannot remotely provide a compelling virtual experience.  There’s been a renaissance in development of 3D sound technologies, sound propagation research and environmental modelling. That is such a natural fit.  And creating sounds for these systems aren’t quite as straightforward as one may think.  That’s definitely an area for growth and experimentation.  Just when we think we have things figured out in game audio, something new comes along, presenting new challenges and opportunities.

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So let’s talk about GameSoundCon. How did GameSoundCon originate?

Leading up to the launch of the original Xbox at Microsoft, I would give tons of talks to composers and sound designers around the world about audio on the Xbox, and really enjoyed it. Audio people were hungry for information about how they could use this new tech to compose music for their games or how to best utilize the cool tech in the Xbox to do new and interesting things with sound.

Earlier I mentioned how the use of the DVD meant that game music could now be created by composers with more traditional (and less technical) background in music: film, TV, etc.  However, as I saw many of these people come from film/tv into games, they were all being stymied by the same issues: fundamental creative, technical (and even business) differences between what they were used to doing creating sound for traditional media, and what they needed to do for games.

So, after leaving Microsoft, I thought that it would be very useful to create something  to help these very talented linear media composers and sound designers understand games: how they work, the creative challenges, how technology affects the creative, etc.  That’s pretty much where GameSoundCon came from: taking something I love to do (teach others about game audio), and matching it with the need composers and sound designers have for this information.

 

Since that first event, what would you say you’ve learnt the most?

I have definitely been reminded what an incredible community we have in game audio, and perhaps learned that that can be pretty unusual.  Almost without a fault, new attendees at GameSoundCon remark how incredibly open and sharing the people who work in game audio are.  Whether it’s formally sharing through their presentations  and panel sessions or informal sharing through conversations over drinks, that really surprises a lot of people; how happy we all seem to be to talk about what we do, even as we are competing for the same work.

I’ve also learned how important it is for people to have access to information—hard data– about our industry.  That’s why we started the Game Audio Industry Survey last year, and why I believe it’s important to research and share information on other areas of our industry. The more we as a community know about how we fit into the broader industry, the better we all can serve it.

 

Let’s talk about this year’s GameSoundCon. What highlights do we have to look forward to?

I’m very excited about this year’s conference.  It will be our 11th GameSoundCon since 2009, and our 5th in Los Angeles.

Chance Thomas’ keynote will be one of the highlights certainly for me.  Chance has been in the industry 20 years and is one of those who have helped push the industry forward—for example, he was *the* driving factor in lobbying NARAS to make game music soundtracks eligible for the GRAMMY award. On top of being a top notch composer,  Chance is also a tremendous educator and his talk is sure to inform and inspire.

The hands-on sessions for FMOD and Wwise are also great.  They’re taught by people from the companies that make the tools, so you’re getting info straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak.

 

What would you say makes this year stand out the most?

I’m quite happy to say that we have a very diverse set of speakers and panellists this year.  Two of most anticipated and energetic sessions we have each are the Composer’s Panel and the Audio Director’s panel; this year only half of those on the panel are men.

There are two mini focuses we have this that I’m particularly excited about. Audio for VR/AR is going to be hot, and we have 2 sessions dedicated to information and research in that area. Several 3D audio companies will also have demo tables this year—it’s just too hot a topic to ignore.

On the music side, we have a great 1-2 punch for those who deliver music using virtual orchestras.   Composer Laura Karpman will be giving a great talk on how to best compose and orchestrate using virtual libraries.  That will be followed by the esteemed film and game mixer John Rodd giving expert advice on how to mix virtual to make it sound ‘real.’  I’m looking forward to those myself!

 

Who should consider going to this year’s event?

GameSoundCon is for anyone who is either working game audio and wants to keep their finger on the pulse of the industry or for those who would like to work in game audio and drink ‘game audio’ from a firehose for 2 days so they’re better prepared for the unique creative, technical and business challenges when they get their first game gig.  GameSoundCon is also for those who want to improve their skills and knowledge as they get a few games under their belts to take things to the next level.

 

If asked for one reason why they should go, what would you say?

There is something you get –an energy, a buzz– from being in a room of 250 composers, sound designers and other audio professionals talking about games that you really can’t replicate.  I know I should probably say “you should come to GameSoundCon to get the information you need to be successful in creating or maintaining a career in game music and sound design,” but it really is more than that.  It’s about being a part of the community of game audio, where we all inspire and encourage each other, through our excitement and passion for what it is we do for a living.

One of my favorite things about GameSoundCon is how re-energized I feel after it’s over about how fortunate we are to be able to do what we do for a living. I’ve had multiple attendees tell me the same thing.

 

What would you say is the best thing people could come away from the event with?

Here I will get practical :).  For those new to games, you will come away with a deep understanding of just how different working on games is from what you’re probably used to and practical knowledge you can use immediately.  We take you on a deep dive into the specifics of what people who make a living doing game audio all know, from the low-level tech issues to the high-level aesthetic ones.

 

For those experienced in games, you will have great discussions with your colleagues, talking about some aspect of game audio the talk you were at just inspired you to re-think some aspect of game audio you thought you knew—that’ s certainly what happens to me!  We sometimes spend a lot of time heads-down in our silos, working on our projects, and it’s critical that we all pop our heads up once in a while to look and see the incredible work our colleagues are doing.  It makes us all that much better at what we do.

 

OK, a nice fun one to finish off. If you could have a drink with anyone in the world, alive or dead, who would it be?

Isaac Asimov.  Although he’s certainly best known as a science fiction writer, not many know he’s one of the few authors who has written books in every major category of the Dewey Decimal system ranging from American and World History to Shakespeare to limericks.  He was curious about anything and everything, and shared his discoveries and thoughts with the world.  He would be fascinating!

Here are the links for GameSoundCon and Early Bird Tickets end in 12 hours at time of posting this article!

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Another massive thank you to Brian! We hope you enjoyed the interview, check out more over at our Interviews page and don’t miss a thing by signing up to our Monthly Newsletter

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Sam Hughes
An experienced sound designer and voice actor who has worked on various media titles over the years. Always believing in audio, I try to share the wealth of knowledge from my colleagues and veterans of the industry to help audiophiles grow and evolve as a community.
http://www.thesoundarchitect.co.uk

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