We had the pleasure of speaking with BAFTA Award Winning Audio Director Adele Cutting. As an Ex- Senior Audio Director at EA some of Adele’s most well-known projects include the Harry Potter games, where Adele lent her expertise right from the start. Adele is currently running her own audio company SoundCuts where they provide “All things audio” for any medium. We discuss her career history, advice on breaking into the industry, as well as discussing her past, present and future projects.
So how did your journey into audio begin?
I have to say it was probably Singing in the Rain, the film. I was obsessed with it as a kid. I love musicals and I loved Singing in the Rain, because obviously it was about when the talkies first started coming out and seeing how they recorded it on Vinyl and how it could go wrong, I just thought it was awesome.
It started as a bit of an obsession, and then when I used to watch films, I always insisted on watching the credits because I wanted to see who worked on the sound and things like that. When I went to school I did loads of singing and dancing and that sort of thing. Then I got to secondary school and started thinking “It sounds a bit rubbish when you’re in the audience.” So I started thinking more and more about that and then basically I just thought “I kind of fancy finding out about radio”.
My Mum is just brilliant. She wasn’t one of these people that’s like “music isn’t a career” So she said “Why don’t you talk to a local radio station”. So I went to a local radio station to shadow a presenter. I don’t think the presenter really had enough time for someone to shadow them so I sort of got palmed off to the sound department, which was actually where I wanted to be. I found it fascinating, all the stuff they were doing. I helped them go out on live broadcasts. They had a silly sticker competition, where there were stickers in the back of the car, we wandered the streets and if someone had a sticker they won a prize. So I had to knock on their windows and say “You’ve just won, act really happy!” and record their reactions.
So I did that. Then I was lucky enough to get a work placement at Yorkshire TV and started with a dubbing mixer and you know when you just think “this is it, this is what I want to do”. It was brilliant. I was only there for a few weeks but they took me around all the music archives, this is back when everything was on LP and they were working on things like Heartbeat. I went down and the music Director showed me this massive library of music and it was like “Wow!” I just thought it was awesome.
At University I did a sound recording course, well it was a BSc (Hons) Music, I chose it because they did sound recording, acoustic synthesis and electro-acoustic music as well as performance and the usual Music curriculum. I also did a tonne of other work experience things. After that I was dead set that I wanted to get into films, because I didn’t really play games. I played Lemmings, but I didn’t really know the games world. So I went to the National Film & Television School and studied and then got a job at Reel Sound, Pinewood Studios.
Then it was all luck really, EA got in touch with the National Film & Television School to ask if anyone would be interested. My main passion while I was there was animation, because there’s no sync sound or anything and you have to build it all up from the beginning. The head of Audio, Andrew Bolton, suggested me and another chap. Lucky for me the other chap wasn’t as keen as I was, but it was amazing. I turned up and I didn’t really know what to expect, it was a full-on pro tools system, just like a dubbing theatre. So I thought “Yeah, I’ll give it a go.”
Originally I was just under a small contract just to do the landing sequences in Privateer 2: The Darkening. Then I went back to Film, then I came back on another contract and then they offered me a full time job, so I took it!
So when they said that, I thought it was ideal. A stable job doing what I love. I just think my whole career has really been about luck. I was lucky that they contacted the film school; I was lucky that my Mum right at the start was so supportive and suggested stuff. I’m sure I would have got there on my own eventually, but it was great to have a Mum who was like “Try this!” “Why don’t you do this?” “Nothing ventured nothing gained!”
I was really lucky, because when I came in it was just when the Playstation 1 games were coming in. For me I just hit it when all the cool tech stuff was going on and I also thought I’d do it for a bit and then I might go away and come back. However every time I went to leave we’d talk. It was a small team; Chris Nicholls was Head of Department then, I was the first sound designer they employed. There was James Hannigan the in-house composer and then Nick Laviers who was the audio programmer, and Bill Lusty who dealt with all the speech. It really was a bit like a “Dream Team” it really was fantastic. So we’d all talk and I’d say something like “Wouldn’t be great if we could do this, wouldn’t it be great if we had a tool?” and then Nick would say “Yes I’m already thinking about that how about this?” So I always thought “I’ll wait until that tools developed, use the tool and then maybe I’ll go back to film.” Then something else would happen and it’d be “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do that” and the technology was just making everything so much more accessible and it was just really cool to use and see it working. It was awesome; I felt it really was a time where change was happening all the time. With Jim as well, because we both worked in-house and we could do video sequences and we could both talk about what are we going to do here? I’d say “Well I’d really like the SFX to have a moment here” He’d go “Ok I’ll bring the music down here, but I want the music to have a moment here” It was really nice, there was no battlefield of what wins, music or SFX because we were right next door and we were on the same page. It’s wrong to pigeonhole Nick as a programmer because he does compose and design as well, he just did Dead Space 3, before that he worked on Assassins Creed. It just felt really good, and it felt like we were all pushing for something new and that was really exciting, that nothing was in stone. The whole team got on really well and it was just a lovely place to work. Because audio was just coming up, no-one was really focusing on it. They were happy if it was there. I just loved it. Then obviously that was when EA was based in Langley,
Then they bought Bullfrog and worked under that title for a while before they became EA again. They did Theme Park World, Dungeon Keeper 2. I mean they were great to work on. I think it was Dungeon Keeper 2 that really got into voice work and the emotes. That was when I really first got a love of speech direction. I love making silly voices myself, being fairies and pixies along the way. It was just a brilliant time and it seemed to get bigger and bigger and bigger, then EA got Harry Potter. Then it was like “Wow, where did this massive audio team come from?”
Do you have many favourite games?
I’ve got lots of favourite games. I know I said right at the start of my career I didn’t play games but as soon as I started at EA, I felt it was important to play games, to make sure we were the best that we could be. Now I am a game player.
Are you a big gamer now?
Yeah I’d say I play quite a lot. It’s definitely equal with films; it used to be films all the way. I think the more you play the more you get into things. One of my favourite games, are the Uncharted games. I think everything’s done really well in those games but the speech and the narrative is just awesome. The way Nathan Drake is written he is just such a character, a solid character. At the same time I love things like Thomas Was Alone, because without the speech on that, it would be just cubes. I look at that and think “That’s genius”. If I’d have been given that game, I hope I could have come up with something like that. You really feel for the characters, it was just cute. There are loads of games I could say but Uncharted is definitely one of my favourite games for sound. There’s so many that I really love. I’m hooked on a lot of mobile games too; I feel there’s so much potential for exciting and new audio on them…a little like going back to the PS1 era.
So what software do you use mainly?
I use loads of different stuff. When I was at EA it was mainly SoundForge, Pro Tools with like Waves and Altiverb and things like that. However now that I’m freelance I use practically everything going. Pro Tools, Vegas and SoundForge, with Waves are still my main ones. Then I worked with Paul Weir at Microsoft and he wanted to try out Reaper and see how that was so I got Reaper and I used that. Other companies want me to use Nuendo so I use that too. Everybody has their favourites and I’m probably going to get slammed for this. I think once you use one, everything’s got its unique features, but fundamentally they’re more or less the same. Although my heart belongs to Pro Tools because that’s what I grew up on, it all does the job.
Do you use any middleware like Wwise and FMOD?
Yeah Wwise and FMOD. I do find it funny when you’re talking to clients and you’re asked which one you are. It’s pretty much the same as my view on Pro Tools etc., and I’m just like “Well, what do you want me to use and I’ll use it” I do teach at the National Film and Television School now as well, and one of the modules I teach them is Wwise and go through basic examples.
Cool, so is there a sound you’ve created that will always stick with you?
Yep. I call it contact. It’s basically just a rumble that swells up and down. What it was I saw the film “Contact” and I loved it so much that I decided to go home and try to design the sound of the big machine going round that Jodie Foster goes in. I got tube trains and mixed in loads of other elements, rumbles and basses and things. I actually had the fortune to run into Randy Thom at an event (London School of Sound) and I was a bit of a geek and said “I really love Contact, I tried to recreate this sound” and he said “Yeah I used subway trains” and I was like “Oh yeah, oh yeah, I got it” haha. Obviously his was a lot better, but this sound is awesome for trailers and so I think most of my trailers have this contact sound in there. There’s also an explosion sound I made that I use whenever there’s a logo, an ident or a stab. I tell you what, my favourite sound effect for years was on the EFX gun series, it was a Howitzer cannon and that was awesome, really powerful. Then my other favourite sound effect recently, I bought a frog sound effect from a library. It doesn’t really sound like a frog, and pitched down it sounds amazing, I’ve used that a lot.
How does audio testing work, do you have a lot of focus groups?
When I was at EA, a lot of the testing was the audio department; everyone sort of knew what should be playing where. If you’ve designed something you’re obviously going to check its working. Although we did do quite big testing documents for the test department. Because it’s not like art where you either see it or don’t see it, it could just be a sound effect but it’s not attached to anything it’s just there for emotional content, or symbolise something. For example, it could be a nest of doxies but there’s not a nest of doxies you’re just putting it in the environment to make it come alive and expanding the fiction. In fact one of the funniest things we ever did. In one of the Harry Potter games there were these creatures called Erklings, scary little creatures who play the flute, a bit like child catchers. The idea behind that was we wanted it to be that whenever you heard the Erkling theme in the music you knew that the Erklings were going to arrive. So once this musical theme was established we messed around with it putting the Erkling theme where there weren’t any Erklings. Things like that are just not obvious to somebody when they’re testing it and they don’t know what the audio team have done. So I always used to hire somebody specifically, usually someone fresh out of Uni who wanted to be a sound designer in the games industry to work specifically as an audio tester as part of the audio team. You can’t effectively test audio if you don’t know what the audio is trying to do or don’t have a good set of ears. It’s very difficult though I think, audio testing.
So is there a particular project so far that you are most proud of?
Gosh, every projects different. Even with Harry Potter you’d think year after year they’d be the same, but they were all incredibly different experiences. I like different projects for different things.
Was it not really good timing with all the technological advances onto ps2 and everything?
They might have been great in terms of technology, but it meant first of all they were incredibly short turn arounds, like a year, which is ridiculous for that size of game.
I guess you had to hit the release of the film?
Yeah we had to absolutely hit the film or else there could have been a hell of lot of sales that would have been lost. Because of the technology changing, it meant you were also working on a platform that no-one had used before. So it was new, and short.
So I can’t really think of my proudest. Chamber of Secrets has to be up there, which was actually the first one we made. It was just fun, and it was the first time we’d used orchestral music. That was pretty cool, and a massive learning curve. Again it was a great team and it’s always nice working with people that are all going for it. I was very lucky; I managed to get a programmer friend of mine on the project. I thought he was so super good that we’d have no chance that he’d get on the audio side of the project. However he said that he couldn’t work at his desk because he’d just get handed work all the time. So I arranged for him to move into my office, luckily the Dev Manager was into audio and said yes. So this chap Will came into my office and it was awesome. It was like going back to the days when I first started at EA and everybody was really close. The fact where I’d submit something he’d get it programmed super quick and could review it immediately really got the game sounding great as iterations were so easy.
Yeah I think that was one of the best ones, but I loved working on all of them for loads of different reasons.
So tell us about SoundCuts and how it originated?
It’s something I wanted to do for a long time. I’d been working at EA for about 15 years and I could tell it was very much heading towards a contractor driven environment. Audio departments are very expensive due to the equipment and software we need and everything. I could also see the development of lots of Indie studios and wondered what they were going to do with audio. I thought if I could create an out of house sound team they could use as a one-stop-shop, where we cared about the product and could have as much (or as little) involvement as they wanted it could be great, where they actually felt like we were an extension of the team, not just and ‘outsourcer’. One of the things I loved doing at EA was juggling multiple projects and having a lot of varying projects on the go. So I thought “Hmm I fancy doing this”. I loved my time at EA and wouldn’t change it for the world, but really felt it was the right time to start up my own company. I planned to take off some time first but I got something through straight away and from there it led to more work and I got recommended to other people and more and more contracts came in and it went from there really.
So when did you start up?
About November 2011, yeah it all kicked off then and I haven’t looked back since, it’s been really crazy. It’s been great fun, I feel as if learnt more these years working with SoundCuts than I did in my last few years at EA. Just from visiting so many different studios, so I’ve seen lots of different working practise. Working with lots of different platforms, having to work with FMOD and Wwise and whatever else anyone wants to give, working with loads of different composers. It’s just been so exciting and fun, like back when I first started and you feel like you’re on the verge of something really exciting. If it carries on like it is that’d be awesome, if it gets even bigger, even better.
So yeah I’d had this plan, because obviously I’d worked with lots of sound designer and contractors and there were people I hadn’t worked with yet who I thought were awesome. I thought it’d be great if I get a lot of work in and then I can collaborate with all these people who are super talented, ‘share the love’ and make great audio in the process.
Luckily that’s what happened, I got to a stage where it was just too much for me, obviously I was already working with composers on all the projects, but now it’s been great to pull together other sound designers to work with as ‘the regular team’ and with new sound designers and work with them too. I’d like people to see us as part of the sound community.
It is, for want of a better word, a very “user-friendly” site and it’s not very corporate looking.
I’m glad you said that, because originally I put a site up as soon as I left EA and I took it down straight away. I just looked at it and thought it was just too corporate. I want people to think it’s a more personable thing and not just a machine. I want people to know I’m actually interested in the project; I’m not just doing the sound. I want the sound to be right, I want it to work with the visuals and say what they want to say.
So that’s what SoundCuts is about, it’s just about making really great sounding games, being super easy to work with, good fun, but professional and delivering on time and communicating!! Having been the ‘in-house’ person hiring and working with external people and companies at EA, I already had a list in my mind of what I thought were the best working practices for external resources…and communicating is definitely up there!
Do you offer any internships, work experience or junior roles?
Not at the moment, but yes definitely something I want to do in the future.
You’re going to be speaking at Game Music Connect. How did that come about I take it James Hannigan approached you?
Yeah we’d worked together on a project at SoundCuts and he was saying he really wanted to do something that was based on music. He’s very passionate about what he does and he’s obviously very good friends with John Broomhall, who is brilliant at organising anything like that and also very passionate about audio. So the next time I called him he said “Oh I’ve been mulling it over with John what do you think it sounds like?” and I said it sounds awesome. I love talking about audio. So yeah he said it was going ahead and would I be interested and it just went from there. It’s a new idea to have a conference that specifically focuses on the music side of games audio. I’m very excited about the line-up though as well, I’m a bit of a fan-boy for a lot of the people who are going to be speaking.
Yeah I try not to get too excited during interviews haha!
It’s hard though I remember when Ben Burtt was speaking at the South Bank and playing examples, and I thought I was going to cry when he came on stage haha. I just love his stuff so much, and I think everyone had the same idea because the queue to meet him afterwards was the whole audience I think. I’d really like to meet Gary Rydstrom, really like to meet him and Tom Myers. I’d also love to meet Amy Hennig because I’d been asked to speak at Bath University, on the John Broomhall sessions. He’d asked me to talk about speech, because of the work on the Harry Potter stuff. I said yes I’ll talk about Harry Potter but I’d like to go through games that I think have great speech as well. I used Uncharted because there was a specific scene where it was just awesome. Having directed speech I was pretty sure they’d improvised because it was just too flippant and casual and sounded so natural. SO I contacted her and she was so nice. She said I was right it was improvised and sent me the mo-cap data, the final cut-scene and all the information it was awesome. So I’d love to speak to her again and talk to her properly, and just to say thank you again. I think that’s the other thing about audio people, we’re very open to talk about how we do it. People will tell you, because I think everyone is just excited. We’ve come so far from Playstation, we’re about to enter Playstation 4 and Xbox One.
Mark Yeend did the Keynote speech for audio at Develop this year. He said brought up some amazing points. He was basically saying that it’s good to share your knowledge it doesn’t make you vulnerable it just raises the bar and everybody gets better. I think the whole thing with now, Sony came out with World Wide Audio Standards and Microsoft will probably do something very similar. It’s all about sharing and raising the standard across the board.
What lies in the future for you and SoundCuts?
I just hope we get bigger and we can get more people on board. I’d like SoundCuts to have a really good name. We’re working on really fun and diverse projects and on a title which is being announced at Gamescom, which I’m really excited about. When people talk about us I’d like people to say. “Yeah they deliver the goods, it sounds great but they’re easy to work with, hassle free” That’s what I’d like people to say. I just hope it carries on the way it is and keeps getting bigger. The whole thing we put “All things audio” as our strapline, but it really is we do stuff that isn’t games as well. I just love working with audio. That’s what it’s all about I want to keep doing something I love.
After Game Music Connect I think SoundCuts will probably get even more attention.
I hope so. I just want people to think, no matter how small or large the audio is for their game they can come to us to get a good job done. And just because they’re a small company or working on a small game, it doesn’t mean that they can’t have great sound. The same goes for the large projects. I just want to work with people I like working with and people who are enthusiastic and fun and excited about sound. There are so many sound designers I’d like to work with and collaborate with.
As an Audio Director what did you look for when hiring interns?
There are a few things. A good set of ears and being able to talk about audio. I was always shocked when hiring interns at EA, how many interns came to interview and couldn’t talk about sound. That struck me as odd, because if you want to do a job in sound, surely you have an opinion about it. I’m aware you might be scared that if you say you something is good; I’d say it was rubbish but it wasn’t the point. It doesn’t matter if I agree with you or not. If you say you like it because of x, y and z, that’s why you like it. Who am I to say you’re wrong, you’re not wrong. I was always amazed at how many people who couldn’t talk about, or say what their favourite soundtrack or something is. You need to be able to talk about, have some ideas before you go in. Secondly I’d say do a bit of research, find out a bit more about the company before you go in.
Did many people do that then?
Surprisingly yeah. I thought people would know it was Harry Potter they would be working on. Or even say “I hate Harry Potter films” which shouldn’t have a bar on it but it is a bit of weird thing to say in an interview. Say it to your mates down the pub, but not in an interview!
We also did Pro Tools tests, and that can sound quite scary but it wasn’t about, for me anyway, their Pro Tools skills because we could teach them that. But it was about their choice. So we basically had a movie and a load of SFX but they had access to the server and could download other SFX, and they had to track lay a short bit. It taught you so much about the sound designer because they all had the same amount of time. You’d get someone who would track lay one sound effect with about 80 plug-ins on it and then you’d get someone else who would roughly track lay everything. The choice of samples that they used and the way in which they used them and the plug-ins told you so much about them. It told you so much about their ears as well.
I read your interview with Mark Kilborn and he said don’t send music in for a sound design job, which I totally agree with. So yeah good ears and being able to talk about stuff. Good ears is kind of a bit woolly but you can tell whether someone can listen constructively or whether they are just hearing, apologies for the terrible quote.
It’s about hearing the way sounds interact with each other. One thing I hate is when people listen to your sound effects one at time and approve it or not approve it. I might have EQ’d it so that it sits well with the music or other effects but when played on its own might sound a bit dodgy. When I first started to mix I was really sound effect focussed so the SFX right up in the mix with music squeaking away in the background and then I’d overcompensate by raising the music right up worrying I hadn’t given it enough space. It’s all about good ears and it’s very clear when you’re working with an intern through they’re choice of sounds and appropriateness. It may not be a linear medium but it is a visual medium, so appropriateness and thinking outside the box. You learn a lot from other people, Eddy Joseph, the Film Sound Supervisor; he came in to consult with us as sound supervisor on film ‘The Philosophers Stone’. We thought it’d be great because we were working with the film team and having his ears on the game. It was brilliant because he’d say things like “add some sheep” and I always do that now if it’s countryside, even if it’s just subtle and you can hear like one “Ba”. He just let slip some of these great nuggets. So that’s what I’d say, be able to talk about sound, I know it’s hard in an interview but you have to remember everyone’s just a person. People want you to be good. I never sat there trying to catch anyone out.
So I’m an aspiring sound designer who wants to work in games. Where do I start?
Well keep doing your sound design. I assume you’d have a show reel. With sound design on it. I’d say contact people. We’re a pretty open crowd and if you knock on enough doors, someone is bound to say “Come on in”. There are loads of the indie games out there, and you need to get out of the AAA title mind-set because there are so many fun and great games out there that aren’t AAA. If you want to be a sound designer why does it matter? You’ll get the same amount of fun and experience out of a smaller project than you will out of the big ones. To me it’s just about making great quality sound for the project that I’m working on. Don’t just focus on the massive projects. If you’re a sound designer you’re a sound designer. On smaller games you’ll get to experience all the different disciplines within sound, which will only give you greater experience when you do move onto a large title. Go out there and do lots of recording too.
What would you’re major Do’s and Don’ts be for a sound design show reel?
Well again, don’t put music on a sound design show reel. Don’t be out of sync that’s a bug bear of mine. Lots of people say don’t capture a game and re-tracklay it. I’d say why not? A lot of people say put an interactive Wwise project in there and you can but at the same time it’s about your sound choice and it sounding good. I can tell that even if you have a crappy video as long as the sound is good, and in sync. All the other stuff can be taught, it can even be a film. It’s always weird when people send me individual SFX like Car Rev 1 Car Rev 2 and I didn’t really know what to do with that. Whatever you think demonstrates your skills.
One of the difficult things I find is filling out the forms it’s hard to know how to come across…
You can put some personality in there. Maybe some people would disagree with me, but you have to work as part of a team. It’s difficult when you work with somebody who’s not part of the team. Don’t get me wrong you don’t have to be centre of attention; you can have a quiet personality too, a successful team has lots of different characters but you need to know how to communicate and have respect. You might be working with these people 24/7. So I’d definitely add personality. If I love something I’d say I love it. It’s very difficult as it’s a very automated process.
What about spec letters?
I’d send them all to the Audio Director, not just the recruitment department. I always felt like I never got a lot of stuff. If it gets sent to me I’d listen to it and I’d read the CV. Its hard these days, lots of people are fresh out of Uni with the same qualifications so it’s about getting experience and going an extra mile and making sure you have got stuff. Some people say “I can’t get a show reel together as I haven’t got the stuff at home” which I don’t think is an excuse any more. There’s a lot of trials and free software out there. Use your brain, if you want the job, do what you have to do to make it happen! Don’t have any excuses, because there are none.
One guy asked about an internship and there weren’t any, and we used to have them, and then we’d stopped, I said we should start again. He was good when he came in, but there was no way I wasn’t going to take him on board, because he was the one who kept banging on the door. If you’ve got two good people and one is just really really passionate about it you’re going to give them the job.
Any other advice?
I’d just say make sure you apply to Audio Directors and keep an eye out for indie stuff as well.
What about the AAA experience requirement?
I don’t think they should even put that on there anymore. Apply anyway. I mean I don’t think there are that many AAA titles anyway now. It’s about demonstrating your experience and showing that you have the ability to use your experience and skills from the smaller titles and project them on to an AAA game. I think saying ‘AAA’ they’re trying to say quality…but you should always be able to show quality from your work. With AAA games mainly the size is massive, so trying to keep a hold of all the assets and knowing where everything is. For example the Potter games were full of speech files, loads of them! All hand edited and labelled with a precise name which included so much information such as gender, chapter, localisation etc. and so many different languages. There’s lots of stuff you’ll know even though you haven’t worked on an AAA title, like the time management, understanding the tools you’ll need and things like that. Audio people have to know everything about every other discipline. You are last in the chain. Everyone else has got to do their work to get to you in the chain and if they make any changes, it all impacts on you. Working on smaller games does give you valuable skills that you can take with you on larger projects. It’s making sure you know how to ‘sell’ these attributes when going for an AAA interview. A smaller game gives you a broader experience in sound terms, if you start your career on a very large title, it might be the case that you only focus on one area of sound such as speech editing for a while. The only time I would see having ‘AAA’ experience to be important could be for a more senior position such as lead or director, as otherwise you might get a shock…but for other positions I don’t think it’s appropriate.
We’ve basically covered most of them but is there a number one tip that you would give an aspiring sound designer?
Talk about sound, and talk to sound people. We’re a friendly bunch there’s the whole #gameaudio they meet up regularly, there’s other events out there. You never know, one day someone might be looking for a junior sound designer and someone will go “Actually, I know someone” and there you go.
Oh and one last addition, record sound. Record lots of sound.
Adele was an absolute pleasure to talk to and interview. Adele provided a great insight into the industry as well as being a fantastic interviewee who doesn’t mind geeking it up about audio! Hope you all enjoyed it and have taken something from it. Keep an ear out for more articles soon!
Interview and Transcription by Sam Hughes