We had the great opportunity to speak with Mark Kilborn, Audio Director at Raven/Activsion. Known for his work on various AAA titles including PGR4, Forza Motorsport 3, Singularity and of course Call of Duty:Modern Warfare 3. Mark is currently working on the newest game immensely popular Call of Duty Series Call of Duty:Ghost. We speak to Mark via e-mail.

What path led you into sound design in the beginning?

My interest in sound came from hearing music as a child. I liked a lot of stuff, but specifically I heard the album “Please” by the Pet Shop Boys, when I was 5, and it just caught my ear. The synth sounds were interesting, there’s a bit of sound design in it where you hear a street scene, etc. At the time I was playing my shiny new NES and falling in love with video games, and I made the connection: someone makes sounds for games. That started it. I strayed a bit as I grew up, lost my determination and tried for a while to get a “real job,” but I came back to it.

How long have you been a sound designer now?

I’ve been a regularly paid sound guy for about ten years now, 7 of that in games. But I’ve been working with sound in various ways for about 18-20 years (a lot of time in bands as a teenager).

Have you always wanted to work in games?

Yep. I had it figured out pretty early.

Just out of interest what was the first game you ever played?

I honestly don’t remember. I know I played something on the 2600 at my uncle’s house before I owned anything. I definitely remember that the first game console I owned was the NES (received for Christmas 1985), and I got the Deluxe Set. So I had Gyromite and Duck Hunt, and they bought Super Mario Bros. separately. So those were the first three I owned.

What has been your most challenging project so far?

My latest project is always the most challenging. Every project brings new challenges. And I realize that sounds like a cop out answer, but it’s the truth. This job is like a rabbit hole that just keeps getting deeper. On each project I learn how to solve a lot of new problems, so I deal with them much more easily on the next, which gives me time to discover a lot of new problems.

What project are you most proud of?

It’s hard to pick just one. I’m proud of different projects for different reasons. I’m extremely proud of what we accomplished on Singularity. The audio team here came together at the 11th hour and made some pretty dramatic changes to the sound of the game, and I think they significantly improved the final product.

I’m very proud of our work on Modern Warfare 3. There’s some amazing work in there, despite pretty insane/ridiculous challenges. I’m proud of the racers (PGR4 and Forza Motorsport 3), which were amazing games and both taught me a lot.

What would be your dream project?

I’d love to work on a really scary survival horror game, something like the early Silent Hill titles. It would be fun to work on a tactical RPG, like XCOM/Tactics Ogre/FF Tactics. I’ve always wanted to work on something with a whimsical, humorous feel to it, like a DoubleFine game or something. Just about everything I’ve touched has been realistic or dark.

Is there a sound you’ve created that you’ll always remember?

I don’t know about a specific sound I’ll always remember. There are things I’m proud of. I obviously have to be careful about revealing too much “behind the scenes” stuff here, but it’s happened that I’ve put a lot of effort into the sound of something and been extremely proud of it, and that piece of the game, or an entire level, was cut for various reasons. Most of my proudest sound design moments have been like that. I’m thinking of a very specific example and it’s making me sad, lol.

I did some work on a game that got cancelled, and was sounding amazing. It was a third person action game, and we were taking a lot of audio influence from Children of Men, The Bourne films and Uncharted. Two of us were on it, tag teaming it, and we were just so ecstatic at the results we were getting with some of the new approaches we were trying. I think it would have been the best sounding thing I’ve ever touched.

I’m also really proud of some of the technology stuff I’ve contributed to over the years. I’m much stronger as a sound implementer/mixer than I am as a sound designer, so I tend to get my hands dirty with hooking sounds up, resolving problems and creating hacky solutions when necessary to get the job done.

What software do you use?

It’s a rotating collection of stuff. Nuendo is my go to DAW. Sound Forge has been my wave editor for years, but I’m slowly moving toward Audition because I’m sick of the bugs and crashes. I love Reaper for its batch processor and Python integration, and I keep meaning to dig further into it as a DAW. iZotope RX2 for cleaning stuff. Those are the core tools.

On the plug-in front, I use the Waves plugs as my general set. Altiverb and Speakerphone are awesome. I rotate some other stuff in and out, and I try out new things from time to time, but I’m just not the sound guy that gets into the latest, greatest plugins. I’m a firm believer that the two most powerful tools in a sound designer’s toolbox are a good microphone and a good EQ, so I try to get a lot of mileage out of those. The Sound Toys and Valhalla stuff is on my “to check out” list though 🙂

Outside of flashy audio software, I can’t get through my day without a bunch of not-very-exciting-but-still-critical things: UltraEdit, Sox, Python, Renamer, Automator, AutoHotKey, TextEdit (getting fancy!).

As an aspiring games sound designer, where do I start?

Make noise. It’s really that simple.

I wrote a big article on GameCareerGuide recently about this, but the gist of it is: make noise. Get the most basic tools you need to make sound (you can easily equip yourself for under $1,000), make it. Get really, really good at it.

Download FMOD Designer or UDK or Unity or something. Learn how to implement sound with it. There are so many more tools out in the world now than there were even ten years ago.

How do I stand out from the crowd?

A few things catch my attention:

Really strong sound design. Make amazing things (more about this at the end). This doesn’t just mean realistic. It means memorable.

Good mixing. This is a big one for me. There are too many flat sounding games in this industry, give me dynamics. There are too many overly busy games. Reduce to just what matters, turn down/mute the rest. Know when to push and pull. Break “rules” intelligently, don’t say things like “this cannon is the loudest thing in the game, nothing can ever be louder than it.” If there’s a key climactic scene and someone pulls the pin of a grenade and drops it, let that pin drop be the loudest thing in the game.

Interactive demos. Anyone can make a video, and that only shows half your skill set. The other half is how you implement. Show it to me in a way that’s interactive.

Show something unique about yourself. What are you into that’s different? MaxMSP. Processing. Modular synthesizers.

A very positive, very eager, very humble personality. A sense of humour is great. Willingness to accept and give criticism in a constructive way. Zero ego.

What are your major Do’s and Don’ts for applications?

I kinda covered the Dos above. Some don’ts:

If you’re applying for a sound design job, do not send music. If you want to be a composer, that’s a very different career path.

Don’t send me letters or CVs with typos. Sound implementation is a very detail oriented job. A typo or a missed semicolon in our game can break the build and hinder the progress of 300 other developers. Correct spelling, punctuation, this stuff matters. If you can’t pay attention to it when selling yourself, then how can I trust you not to break the game?

Don’t send me demo materials that are difficult to access. I’m very busy, and I need to get to the meat of your demo as quickly as possible.

Were there any big mistakes in the beginning of your career that you learnt from the most?

Oh I make mistakes constantly, lol. Most of the bigger mistakes have been more political than tech/sound related. I’m a very un-political, uncensored person, so I’ve often offended people by just being myself and stating my opinions. I’ve tried over the years to be better at it, and I think I am better now than I used to be, but I still step in it from time to time.

Big lesson: this industry is small. You never know when you’ll be working with or for someone. So be careful whose toes you step on. But, that said, don’t be a pushover. Be confident on yourself, speak up for what you believe in, but be humble enough to know when you’re wrong, accept responsibility for it, and apologize.

What did your first showreel consist of?

Oh it was a mess. I found a copy of it recently and was embarrassed to even look at it. It had a scene from a cartoon for which I did all new sound design and mix, and the result was pretty poor. I had a piece of music in it that I wrote, this was before I realized that you should target one or the other. But even with that aside, the music was awful.

My first really successful demo was for Bizarre Creations. I knew they made racing games, so I set up a recording session with a vehicle locally (a friend’s Mustang, best car I could find at the time), captured a bunch of materials, then downloaded FMOD Designer and built a session with an interactive engine.

It sounded pretty awful, but it was functional, so I shipped them the entire FMOD session. Their AD at the time said something like “Yeah, it sounds pretty awful, but it’s better than our first attempt at this was, so let’s talk.”

Now, the age old question from most sound designers who want to get into games.

All the vacancies ask for experience on an AAA title, but how do I get this experience if I cant get these jobs?!

Yeah, the old catch 22. The answer is patience and networking. Once you’ve got experience on a AAA title, a lot more doors open up. But getting that first one is challenging.

Get to know as many people as you can in the field. And don’t just get to know them to get work, get to know them to get to know them. Make friends. Be genuine. Most of the people making game audio are amazing people who are well worth knowing, so just enjoy knowing them.

Do whatever smaller work you can. Smartphone games, indie games, whatever. You’ll get more experience while you continue pounding on the AAA door and, frankly, you might find you prefer working on the indie stuff. I know plenty of people who are very happy in that world, and some amazing sounding games are made in that sector (see Limbo).

So-called “luck” is really just the collision of preparation and opportunity. Develop your skills. Build a portfolio of good work. That’s preparation.

Network. Surround yourself with people who are doing what you want to do. That’s exposing yourself to opportunity.

At some point opportunity will appear, and you’ll have put yourself in the right place with the right skills to take advantage of it.

In what ways did you network in the beginning?

I met people via mailing lists and whatever social media things existed at the time. Going to GDC and doing the Audio Boot Camp (I think they still do this) and the audio track sessions was huge. You go to those things, then next thing you know you’re having dinner and drinking with other people, you build up a network of friends.

What got you your job in sound design for games i.e. what was your “big break”? 

Like I said previously, it was the combination of preparation and opportunity. I had a lot of interest in music, played in bands, and through that I knew of someone who I later found out was working in game audio. I got to know him, and when an opportunity popped up, he got in touch and asked me if I was willing to help him out. I quit my job to work with him on the project, and that opened more doors.

What do you think lies in the future of sound design for gaming?

I’ve got a gamasutra blog in the works on this, but briefly:

I think real-time mixing is our next big frontier. With the next gen consoles and PC specs, there’s not going to be a lot we can’t do. A lot of games are using some form of real-time mixing now, but the power available to us is going to really open up next gen. So I’m thinking about things like dozens (or more!) multi band EQs being used simultaneously at run time, with parameters dynamically scaling based on in-game data. More detailed reverbs with modeling that responds to in-game environmental changes (particularly destructible environments). Lots more

I’d also like to see a big push on the tools front. Different people are at different places on this, but I’d like for next gen to be the generation where we’re all working in the build in real time, making tweaks with the game running. The more we can decrease down time per iteration, the more we can iterate, and ideally the better the sound of the finished game.

What are your goals for the future?

Total global domination.

Seriously, I occasionally think far ahead, but most of the time I’m only focused on the next one or two steps. Professionally, right now I’d say all of us in Raven Audio are focused on enhancing our games with amazing sound, and trying to score some awards for it. We can have our own opinions about the work we do, but if we can earn the respect of our peers in the form of AIAS/DICE or BAFTA awards, then we’ll have independent confirmation. After that it will probably be “Okay, so we won an award, now how do we make our games sound EVEN BETTER?” And we’ll have to come up with some new metric for success.

Personally my goals are to be a great husband and dad, continue to have a job that’s enjoyable and satisfying (so my job isn’t preventing me from being a great husband/dad), and to expand my skills as far as possible. I’m always digging into other disciplines and learning them. I’ve been learning how to make pixel art in the last week or so.

Can you tell us anything about your current/future projects from a sound design perspective?

Umm… they start with “C” and end with “all of Duty.” That’s about all I can say.

I will say that we’re always very focused on how to improve the quality of Call of Duty audio across the board. When you get most of the CoD audio teams and directors together, that’s usually where the discussion goes. It’s on most of our minds. We (all, not just Raven) are a pretty passionate group, we’re always listening to other games and films and other things, and looking for new styles, techniques, etc. to bring into the franchise. We’re also a pretty down to earth, humble group, very approachable, minimal ego, so it’s easy to have challenging discussions. I love that about our peers at the other studios, and it’s something I value in all audio people.

Do you offer internships or work experience at all?

We have in the past. It’s not something we’re doing currently because our schedule just doesn’t permit it, and we don’t have the space. I expect we might be looking at that again in early 2015.

Finally, what is your top tip for aspiring sound designers out there who want to get into games?

I’m going to cheat, here are two:

First, and this applies to more than just game audio folks, this applies to just about anything:

Learn to be a critic. Figure out what the best sounding games and films are, listen carefully and listen again, really dissect and analyze what they’re doing. Learn what’s good and bad. Develop an opinion. Annoy your partner by chattering about it during the movie. Be a snob about it!

Then take that opinion, that demand for quality, and use it as your standard. If you have good taste in sound, and are willing to be honest enough with yourself to hold yourself to that standard, then you just have to keep chasing it. You’ll get there.

There’s an amazing Ira Glass sound bite on this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ResTHKVxf4

Listen to that. Absorb it. Live it. And keep holding yourself to that high standard. No matter how successful you are, always be hungry for more. Never settle on your success. Even the very best sounding games in this business have plenty of room to improve.

Second, be humble. Always be humble. You learn so much more when you’re willing to learn from anyone and not assume you know more than they do. There are a lot of wonderful, talented, friendly people in the field of game audio, and they’re some of the most open and sharing people I’ve ever met. If you’re as humble and open as they are, you can learn from each other. There are a few jerks, but the rest of us are slowly pushing them out of the industry 🙂

Mark was a pleasure to speak to and amazingly helpful. We look forward to speaking to him again in the near future and also his future work.


You can follow Mark here on Twitter: @Markkilborn



Interview By Sam Hughes


Uploaded 29th July 2013

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