Sam Hughes speaks with sound designer/recordist Michael Leaning. Michael Leaning has worked as a professional sound designer for 9 years, starting his sound design career at Traveller’s Tales in 2009, spending 4 years working on the hugely popular LEGO games. In 2013 he moved to Lionhead Studios to work on the Xbox One exclusive Fable legends. In 2016 Michael started work as a freelance sound designer and has collaborated with a number of high profile clients including Sweet Justice Sound, Obsidian Entertainment and SoundMorph.
Thanks for speaking with us Mike it’s a pleasure to have you on the site!
Thanks so much, it’s great to have the opportunity to speak to you and thanks for all the work you do for the sound community.
Before we discuss your recent work, tell us how you first began your journey into game audio?
It all started with picking up the guitar at 14 years old, playing in bands, experimenting with different tones and effects. I’m so glad I really got in to playing an instrument as a kid, countless hours of fun (and frustration) learning to play my favourite songs and many more playing in bands with my friends.
It led me to taking Music Technology at A level, before studying it at degree level at the University of Hertfordshire. I did want to be a rock star or music producer (who doesn’t?), but a few of the more sound design based assignments in my second year really caught my attention. At the time I was also playing the first Fable game and I think it was around then that I really thought about the possibility of working in sound for games. After my undergraduate degree, I realised I hadn’t been quite proactive enough before I finished the course, and I found it impossible to even get an interview at a games company, let alone secure a sound design job. I decided to take the post graduate MSc degree in Music and Sound Technology and Audio Programming, again at the University of Hertfordshire. I would have preferred not to have gone down that route, it was more time and more expense, but in hindsight it really focused me and definitely helped me down my sound design career path.
It took me about 9 months after graduating to even land my first interview, I didn’t get that particular job, but 2 weeks later I was offered a role at Traveller’s Tales in Knutsford, working on the hugely popular LEGO games. I worked there for 4 years, before moving to Lionhead Studios in Guildford in 2013 to work on the Fable franchise, a dream come true! After the studio closed, I went freelance, and here I am today, feeling incredibly lucky to have a job I love, working on some amazing content with some very talented people.
Why did sound design and audio call to you as a career choice?
I think my initial interest in sound design was definitely because of games, I’d been a big fan of gaming since I was a kid playing Super Mario on the NES. Before I started working in the industry, it was the PS3/360 generation and games had come so far since I’d first started playing them. They were becoming cinematic and it was definitely the area of the sound industry that interested me the most.
I love the power of sound and how dramatically it can evoke emotions or change the dynamic of a scene with the lightest of touches. I think like most creative people, either in sound or visual disciplines, it’s the small details that make up the bigger picture that we get excited about. I enjoy bringing little things together to create something bigger than the sum of it’s parts. Of course I love explosions, car chases and futuristic weapons, but I also love footsteps, tiny wood creaks and light wind gusts in ambience tracks.
What is your approach to sound design?
To do what best serves the project primarily. Whilst we can generally all agree on a piece of sound design being “good”, it’s also so subjective and I love the fact that it can go down so many different paths and still achieve the same basic objective of providing a great audio experience.
Technique wise, depending on the subject matter, I generally like to think about the source material I use before jumping in too deeply with designing. I’ll have source projects where I just find and process sounds I think will be useful when it comes to designing a sound or a set of sounds fully. I think breaking things down to their components before putting designs together helps to focus the design process, especially useful for tight deadlines or when you need either multiple variations of a sound, or a consistency between different aspects of the sound design.
What is your philosophy with regards to sound design?
I think I’m quite a pragmatic person generally, so my philosophy is generally “if it works, it works”. There’s a lot said about how if the sound design is really good it shouldn’t be consciously noticed, and I would agree with that sentiment, but I also think if the sound design is really good, it’s subconsciously noticed on a very deep level.
Sound is such a huge part of so many visual experiences, it can make or break a visual sequence and change the viewers perception dramatically. You only have to watch a horror scene with happy non-threatening sound to realise how often those scenes rely on sound to frighten us.
On a biological level humans are pretty easy to manipulate, there are things that we all universally respond to; sudden loud noises, the absence of sound can be unnerving or a juxtaposed soundscape can make something feel very wrong without us consciously realising why. I love the science behind psychoacoustics and I think as sound designers these techniques are one of many in our arsenal that allow us to support narratives and manipulate emotions.
Having said all of the above, sometimes all that is required is a kick ass sound!
Do you have any “go-to” tools and techniques that you use?
Lots, and I keep on adding to them, Being a gun for hire I work on a lot of varied projects with quick turnarounds; There’s not as much time to experiment with style or ideas, you have to design a lot quicker than you would do in-house and you have to know how to get in style as quickly as you can. You need good source material to pull from, a wide variety of different plugins and a lot of different techniques to go to.
I think one of my favourite techniques is using the VST Rack in Soundminer, it was a game changer for me . Being able to set up a chain of different plugins, save that chain as a preset and transfer processed audio straight to your DAW is such a time saver. Burning the effects in to the audio may seem like you lose the flexibility to change the settings later, but I think it really helps me to focus on exactly how I want something to sound before I commit to dropping it in to my project, I also spend a lot less time fiddling with plugin parameters than if I was doing them in my DAW on every track. It can really help your speed and creativity to commit yourself to a certain path sometimes, especially good for those who like to tweak those plugin parameters for hours even when a deadline is looming!
Speaking of plugins, get as many different ones as you can afford, there’s always a sale on so no excuses not to add to your collection over time. Some of my favourite plugs are anything by GRM Tools, Crystallizer by SoundToys, Antresol by D16, Trash2 by iZotope, PheonixVerb by Exponential Audio, Manipulator by Infected Mushroom and MVocodor by MeldaProduction, to name but a small selection. Having a lot of different ways to effect your audio not only helps you to process your audio for a larger variety of styles, but when you chain them together you start making a collection of brand new source material to add to your library. It’s amazing how drastically a couple of plugins can change a sound.
When designing sound what kind of sounds do you usually start with?
It all depends on the complexity of the sound of course, but for something that needs to be very stylised or fresh, I try and break the components of the sounds down into layers. Sometimes this could be as simple as thinking about how I cover the lows, mids or highs, or if it’s something that needs to really stand out, I’ll look for the “signature” of the sound first, that element that sticks out and gives the sound it’s unique character. And you can apply that to all sorts, whether it’s ambience or sci-fi weapon design.
I like to think of sound design in the same way as mixing a music track, give everything a bit of space to shine, it can be so easy to oversaturate your sound effects by over layering them. Do you really need 3 slightly different layers of bass when 1 will do the job perfectly well, or is the mid range so over designed that it’s muddying the entire mix of the sound? It’s fine to overlayer as you fine tune the sound effect, but by the end of the design process I often have as many layers muted as I still have active.
How do you like to layer and edit your sounds?
I touched on this in the previous question, but to elaborate further I think finding a complimentary mix of layered sounds to create something new is generally the goal. Finding that first sound can be the hardest thing, especially when the sound you’re designing perhaps isn’t straight forward. I try and find the “body” of the sound first, this can be a low, mid or high sound depending on the asset I’m making, but finding that leading sound helps me to find the other layers. That first sound can give me the size I’m after or help me to define the style I’ll go on to develop.
In terms of editing I like to use the markers in Pro Tools to define my design areas, I’ll also have a “Source” marker where I’ll throw any unused source material to for later use, especially useful for designing variants later on after I’ve developed the right direction for a sound.
So you’ve recently released your Gore library via SoundMorph, how did this first come about?
I worked with SoundMorph not long after I first went freelance in mid 2016, creating 200 bespoke magic sound effects for their elemental magic library. As is usual for a freelancer, I had a bit of down time between projects last year, and a ballsy gore library is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. I pitched the idea to the guys at SoundMorph and we went from there.
Jason and Yan at SoundMorph were on board with the idea and thought it would be a great addition to the SoundMorph soundpack collection. It was just a case of refining the asset list and setting a few delivery milestones. Then the hard work of recording, editing and designing the assets started!
Why did you choose the gory focus?
There’s a lot of good gore content already out there, probably because it’s such a fun one to record. It can be tough to find really good heavy stuff though, so I wanted to make something that had a bit of punch to it! I’ve always loved the gore sounds in the Gears of War and Mortal Combat games, they’ve got such a recognisable style, really meaty, crunchy impacts and disgusting visceral squelches and gloop. I used that style as an inspiration when making the library, whilst walking the line of not over compressing or distorting the assets.
Where do you start when creating a library?
There’s a lot to think about when creating a library, hats off to those that do it full time, it can be both a creatively draining as well as a hugely rewarding experience.
The idea of what to make can be the hardest decision, there’s so much amazing content already out there and the independent sound library community is such a prolific one! Finding that niche, or if you are doing something that has already been done before, finding your unique selling point is key. Having said this, sometimes just having a fresh take on a theme is really useful, I have loads of thematically similar sounds in my library, but they are all useful for different applications.
Once I’ve settled on a theme, I create the asset list, this often changes a bit during production as I find new assets to add or unfeasible ones to take away. At this stage you need to think about how this library will be used, how many variations to design, do you make small, medium and large or slow, medium, fast varieties etc. How do you construct it so there are both good designed sounds, but they are not so overly designed that people using your library can’t adapt them for their own needs. You also need to be thinking about the kind of source material you need to record and process for the construction of your library.
Once the asset list is done, it’s time to plan and carry out those recording sessions, so far for me it’s been about the subject material rather than a location, so I primarily need to think about props. For the Gore library I went for classics like fruit and veg, sticks, crackers and other crunchy breakables, and my secret weapon for disgusting gore recordings, lots of gloopy cornflour mix! I also made recording schedules that I could follow during the sessions, as it’s really easy to forget to record something once you’ve started, especially if you’re recording a lot of material. If it’s taken a lot of prep for the session, it can be really inconvenient and time consuming to have to go back and capture something you should have captured in the first place, so make sure you’re thorough in both your preparation and in your sessions.
When I record I tend to press record and leave my recorder running for the whole session, just adjusting the distance from the mic or the gain depending on what I’m recording. I call out a description of the thing I’m recording before I do it, just to make it easier for editing later and for if I add something to the list ad hoc.
When I get the recordings on to my machine, I chop it all up, clean it, edit and bounce it out with a descriptive file name. I’ll then create a new Soundminer database and add some metadata to each file. This will then be my tool box of sounds I use to create any designed material for the library.
You might be limited to what you already have, or you might be in a position to get hold of new equipment for a specific library. Different microphones have different applications, so it’s always best to try and match your microphones to the subject material in order to capture the best and most usable source material. On the Gore library I captured a mixture of very high detailed, quiet sounds, as well as big impactful ones. For the more close mic’d detailed recordings I used the DPA 4060 mic, as it’s hi-sens, has a fairly low noise floor and it’s an omni, it allowed me to capture all those squishy details that I wanted close up. For the more impactful stuff, I used my LineAudio CM3s, they’re cheap and cheerful and sound really nice. One of the reasons I used this cheap little mic, is because the sessions were very messy, so it didn’t really matter if it got wet or even destroyed during the course of the session. Don’t test that theory with a Sanken CO-100K though, unless you’re rolling in it of course!
The last thing I’ll say about organising the creation of a library, dependant on your library theme, is find somewhere suitable to record your material, make sure it’s quiet and acoustically as neutral as possible, especially if you’re looking to release relatively raw source recordings. This can be difficult, especially if you’re a freelancer working from a home studio, but it’s really important for the final product to release nice, clean and useable recordings, free of any undesirable background noise or obvious room reverb.
I’ve set myself up a good sized recording area using Producers Choice acoustic blankets, acoustic foam panels on the ceiling and some thick soft furnishing to absorb some more low end, I also have a solid floor, that I cover in mats and carpet to deaden any boomy floor resonance. I record in the wee hours of the morning when the world outside is at it’s most quiet. If you don’t have access to a professional level recording studio, you need to improvise and adapt as best as you can.
How do you name/organise your tracks, sessions and sounds when putting a library together?
I have a template Pro Tools session that is split up in to a number of design tracks, that feed in to auxiliary tracks. I’ll do all the design work for a certain category in “Design A” for instance, so I can add any processing to the auxiliary track without affecting the whole session. I can then do the same with Design B, C etc.
Naming is the eternal quandary, I try not to make filenames too big, instead relying on metadata to provide a more detailed description of the sound, I think most people are using software like Soundminer these days. For more basic searches I think about how sounds list alphabetically, as that’s how most people will view your library, so I try and have some consistency between filenames. For instance:
“Gore_Impact_Flesh_Hard_01” or “Weap_Whoosh_Machete_Fast_04”.
What are the key challenges when creating a sound library?
The biggest challenge is recording and processing all your own source material, you can’t just reach for already existing library material to sweeten or beef up your designs, as you would if you were working on a game or a cinematic. This is where all the planning I spoke about earlier comes good, if you’ve planned well, you should have a good idea of exactly what you need before you launch in to your recording sessions. And the golden rule is “always record more than you think you need”. I recorded about 15GB of material for the gore library before I started designing, and I still ended up doing some additional pick up sessions.
One of the challenges that I didn’t really expect when I helped on my first library release, SoundMorph’s Elemental Magic, was just how creatively demanding and fatiguing it was. I was working on a lot of different magic sounds; Ice, fire, rock, sand, water, good, evil etc. It was a lot of work, I needed to record and edit a large amount of source material and design high quality magic sounds. I found that I spent a lot more time listening out for pops, clicks and ear worms when working on library material, much more so than when I’m designing assets for a game, where I know my sounds are going to be heard back as one part of a much bigger soundscape. There’s less room for imperfections in designed library material and I think the number of times you have to listen to library assets is the most fatiguing, it’s really easy to become desensitised to a sound, which is why it’s good to keep revisiting material over a longer period of time, instead of trying to finish it all at once.
How do you make sure that each sound is unique and usable?
When it comes to variations of a sound type, this is where the golden rule of recording more than you think you need comes in. Usually, if I’ve recorded a lot of takes of something, only 10% or so will stand out as takes I want to use and design with. Having a bigger palette to choose from obviously helps with making your variations more interesting and unique, whilst still keeping in theme.
Like most sound designers, I often use a number of layers when designing a new sound, so how you move the different elements around between variations can make a big difference, things to think about from one variation to the next could be:
- Where do you place the transient or emphasis of the sound
- The timing of when each element is introduced
- How does the sound tail off or resolve
- How loud is each element in the mix
- Does your sound tonally go up,down or stay flat
Keeping those ideas in mind when you’re designing a sound with a number of variations will help you to create a broader spectrum of variants, that don’t all sound completely the same, but are usable for the same applications.
Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment or what’s coming up?
This year I’ve had the pleasure of working on a number of great projects, that are due for release in the very near future. I spent a good chunk of time working on the UI sounds for Obsidian Entertainment’s game, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. It was a lovely game to be involved with and I enjoyed the unique challenge that designing in-style user interface sounds presented.
I’ve also been doing some work with MediaTonic, providing new audio assets for Fable Fortune, as well as a number of other unannounced projects. They’re a company I’ve been working with since going freelance and it’s nice to have a continued working relationship with them.
I’ve been involved with a few VR projects, designing ambiences, foley and sound effects. Some are for demos, others are for fully fledged VR experiences, I’m not allowed to say what they are right now!
I’ve also recently released a library of small motor source material recordings, the kind of stuff you reach for when designing robot movement, sci-fi doors, alarms, futuristic devices, flying vehicles, alien technology etc. It’s generally something I like to do between projects, if I’ve got some down time, being freelance it’s nice to have that flexibility.
And right now I’m working with Sumo Digital on an unannounced project and Sweet Justice Sound on another unannounced project. Sorry, NDAs are a pita, eh?
Do you have any advice for our readers who may want to work in sound design, or create sound libraries?
Creative endeavours are rarely a journey from A to B, there are so many paths and lessons to learn along the way. The technicalities of recording aside, my advice would be to just start recording. It doesn’t matter if you’re making do with inexpensive equipment or you haven’t got a great space to record in just yet, the lessons you’ll learn from just giving it a go will be invaluable, you can’t fake experience. And even if you end up deleting your first attempts at recording something, you’ll definitely have learnt something about how to approach it for next time.
OK fun question to finish off with, if you could hang out with anyone alive or dead, who would it be?
Probably Sean Bean, we’d go for a few pints and a Fray Bentos pie. We’d probably say ‘bastard’ a lot as well.
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