The Sound Architect speaks with incredible sound designer Jeff Seamster. Jeff is currently Senior Sound Designer at Irrational Games and has recently lent his talents to the highly successful Bioshock Infinite. Jeff has also used his skills on other acclaimed titles such as Mortal Kombat VS DC and Blitz: The League II.
Read our interview below:
How did your journey into sound design begin?
You want the very beginning? Well ok… My two sisters and I used to record skits and fake radio spots when we were kids. Don’t ask me why, this was just a thing we did. I went around with a tape deck recording and creating sound effects, then played them in the background on my dad’s stereo while we recorded our shows. I made some interesting discoveries during that time, most of them accidental; Half-pressing the record button would run the tape at double speed allowing us to stretch normal recordings into big, booming effects when playing back at normal speed. I would also lug my recorder into our garage to get a bit of natural reverb when necessary.
The first time I tried sound design with a computer, I was using a Mac program called SoundEdit. It was my earliest exposure to digital reverb and delay, and a glimpse into how deep audio manipulation and sound design could really go.
How long have you been a sound designer?
My first sound design work with a game studio was in 2004 at Stainless Steel Studios in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My time at Stainless was spent working on an RTS called Rise and Fall: Civilizations at War. Since then, I have worked at Tilted Mill on the Caesar and SimCity Societies games, and at Midway Games on Mortal Kombat and Blitz: The League. I’ve been in-house at Irrational Games since 2009 working on BioShock Infinite.
Did you always want to work in games?
It sounds a bit storybook, but I have wanted to work on games since my earliest days of using a computer. The potential for games felt limitless to me back then and to be honest my feelings on that potential haven’t changed.
What was the first game you ever played?
The first game I remember playing was an Atari 800 game called Shamus. It still sticks out in my mind because of its opening music, Funeral March of a Marionette. It was a brutally difficult game but I couldn’t get enough of it.
Do you have a personal favourite?
Ahh, the hardest question! There are several titles in my personal pantheon of gaming, but I still dust off Beyond Good & Evil and Fallout more frequently than the rest. Beyond Good & Evil has such unique characters and setting, amazingly diverse music and charm to spare. I just love being in that world. The Fallout series scratches that post-apocalyptic itch like nothing else and I manage to discover something new each time I visit that world.
What project are you most proud of so far?
BioShock Infinite is the project that holds my best work to date.
OK so I’m an aspiring sound designer, where do I start?
So you just need to get yourself a tape recorder, a microphone…
The good news is that if you’re an aspiring sound designer, you’ve probably already done some sound design. I don’t imagine many people wake up with a start and have a revelation that sound design is their true calling. But for sound designers at the start of their journey, I would recommend working with existing source material and a freeware DAW / sound editing program. Acquaint yourself with the basics of mixing, panning, and DSP. Find out if this is something that you truly enjoy doing because there’s a big difference between sound appreciation and sound design. If you’ve gone through the first steps and are still enjoying yourself, use your own recordings to develop new content. Make an audio alert for your phone, redesign a movie trailer, or try your hand at some creature sound design.
Now that you’re up and running, my most important piece of advice is this: Design as much as you can whenever you can. It sounds simple, sounds obvious, but it’s extremely important and often difficult to maintain. Survival as a sound designer means keeping your skills sharp and current; designing with regularity is the only way to do so. And while not every sound you create will be a masterpiece, regular practice of your craft will bring the overall quality of your work to a much higher level.
What are your major Do’s and Don’ts for applications and show reels?
If you’re asking about how to construct a reel rather than ‘Do I need a reel?’, then you are already well ahead of the game.
– Know your audience. Don’t think that one reel is going to work for every potential hiring manager or client.
– Know yourself. Are you a sound designer or something else? A reel that takes a stab at sound design, composition, and voiceover doesn’t have nearly the impact of a reel that showcases a single discipline. Decide on your creative focus and knock their socks off.
– Design to picture. Not everyone agrees on this topic, but I believe design without context shows that you know how to do half the job. The ability to design holistically is a much greater asset to a project than the ability to design sound in a vacuum.
– Send in a reel with no original sound design. I’m not saying you can’t use library content in your submissions, but trust me when I say that those working in the field of sound design know when you are.
– Send a DVD. It’s 2013. Use the internet.
OK so we obviously want to talk to you about Bioshock Infinite, which is doing amazingly well at the moment and rightly so!
What were your first thoughts when beginning work on the sound Bioshock Infinite?
My first thought was that limitless potential I mentioned earlier. Infinite is my first project with Irrational Games and the studio has an exceptional track record when it comes to sound design and music. As we watched the city of Columbia come together, each location and character unlocked new opportunities for sound design. The excitement was overwhelming.
How many were there on the project with you?
By the end of production, we had over a dozen people contributing to audio on Infinite. Bringing all the sound, music and voiceover of Infinite definitely required a team effort.
How did you delegate the tasks?
There’s a lot of overlap in our work and our skill sets, so some parts of the game had several members of the audio team working on them at once and delegation was often dictated by availability. Still, certain team members developed more familiarity with a certain aspect of Infinite’s audio landscape, so they naturally became the go-to people for that aspect.
What software did you use?
We used a variety of DAWs depending on personal preference and function. Our plugin suite included old reliables like Waves, some great reverbs like Altiverb and Speakerphone, and some new plugins that I just fell in love with from D16 Group and u-he. We used Wwise to author our content and interface with Unreal Engine.
What were your inspirations when creating the sound design and soundscapes for Columbia?
A prime source of inspiration was of course the city of Columbia itself. When you have an art department as creative and innovative as that of Irrational Games, you can’t help but be inspired.
Outside of the game, our team immersed itself in the culture of the time through film, music and literature from and about the time period. The turn of the 20th century was an incredibly eventful and interesting time in terms of technological breakthroughs, industrial development, and cultural progress. We also tracked down as much antique machinery as we could to get a sense of how turn of the century technology sounded.
The greatest source of inspiration, however, was the Irrational audio team itself. Yes, I know this sounds fluffy but our team collaborated so well, drawing inspiration and ideas from our various backgrounds and tastes in sound design. We’re definitely a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.
What was the biggest challenge in Bioshock Infinite?
The biggest challenge I faced was knowing when to exercise restraint as a designer. BioShock Infinite is filled with fantastical ideas and elements, but it was important for us to honor the time period and setting as well. So I could make something feel modern in terms of its sound design, but not too new in terms of the world we were portraying. A city in the sky presented challenges of its own. We were constantly reminding ourselves “Yes, that’s how it would sound on the ground, but what about in the flying city of Columbia?”
How did it differ from your previous projects, for example Mortal Kombat VS DC?
BioShock Infinite presented the cleanest canvas that I’ve ever worked with when it comes to sound design on a game. Every title I worked on before Infinite came with a set of genre conventions that laid a solid foundation but also presented limited potential for creative experimentation. Removing those expectations was incredibly refreshing and at the same time fairly daunting. Infinite was also considerably larger than my previous titles in terms of scope. While our geographical footprint was smaller than some games, the amount of audio detail we put into each level was incredibly deep.
Did you use any sound from the original Bioshock games?
You’ll hear some occasional nods to the original BioShock in Infinite’s user interface. Outside of that, as I mentioned, we were working with a nearly blank canvas in terms of audio.
Obviously there are a million and one comments on the fact that people can hear the songbird call in the background of Bioshock at Fort Frolic. Can you comment on that? Did you purposefully use an old sound for the songbird or is it pure coincidence?
I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of Songbird in an alternate timeline.
Do you have a favourite sound from Bioshock Infinite and if so, why?
The sounds that I created for the Boys of Silence in BioShock Infinite are probably going to stick with me for a long time and for a few reasons. For those unfamiliar, the Boys of Silence are the watchmen of an area in BioShock Infinite that could be described as an abandoned asylum. Their distinguishing characteristic is a large metal helmet fitted with what look like large horns over each ear. As you approach the Boys of Silence, you can see them using their giant “ears” to listen for intruders. Players tiptoe around them so as not to be noticed because if the Boys of Silence spot you, they let loose a deafening scream and call in a huge wave of enemies.
Late one night during production, I had a conversation with Patrick Balthrop, our Audio Director, about how I wanted the character to sound. We were standing in a parking lot and I described how the experience would play out. Some of it was easier to mimick than to explain, so I vocalized how I wanted them to sound. We both liked the idea and then I got cracking on exactly how to design what I’d just described.
I went through several iterations on the Boys of Silence and there are several layers of audio that feedback their presence and state of awareness. When I finally called the audio team together to check out the first Boys of Silence encounter, their reaction was all the assurance I needed. Do a YouTube search for ‘Boys of Silence Scare’ and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Personally I’d like to say I am a massive fan of the sound design for Bioshock: Infinite, congratulations to you and your team on such a fantastic creation. My personal favourite is the sound when Elizabeth throws you money that she has found for you to catch. I can’t really explain why, but I love it! Can I ask how you made it?
The Elizabeth throw sounds were a lot of fun to make because of how they connect the player to Elizabeth. You know those scenes in a Guy Ritchie movie when all the action just stops and the whole film is laser-focused on a single object? That’s what we were going for and when we hooked up the sound to Elizabeth’s throwing action, we were pretty sure we nailed it.
There are a few components to the coin throw sound starting with the button press to initiate the mechanic. That combination of orchestral bass drum and bells not only kicks off the action, but also ducks the volume on a number of audio layers in the game. By putting absolute aural focus on Elizabeth and the gear flying through the air, we captured the desired cinematic effect. A few layers of manipulated coins flipping and ringing play as the money arcs through the air right up until Booker reaches up and snags the money out of the air with a satisfying clap. The catch is what I respond to the most, the nonchalant yet awesome feeling of plucking money from the air.
The timing of the Elizabeth throws going into the build was perfect because it coincided with all the rest of the tech and content for that system coming online as well. The systems team had just tuned the timing, the animation team had just completed work on Elizabeth’s motion and Booker’s hands, the VO team had just implemented the call and response, and lastly we put in the SFX for the event. I clearly remember sitting with the systems design team when it all came together and everyone cheering when Elizabeth saved Booker’s hide by throwing him a gun in the middle of a firefight.
For Burial at Sea, did you retrofit Bioshock1 SFX and if so how did you do it? Were there challenges like dated quality of the original sound, or was the whole pallette completely new because it’s pre-fall?
The pallette for Burial at Sea was built from the ground up and the environmental audio was designed to feel active and alive while maintaining characteristics such that players’ ears could hear a logical progression from pre-fall to post-fall Rapture.
Speaking of Burial at Sea, what were your thoughts when you first found out that Bioshock was revisiting Rapture?
I was very enthusiastic considering how much of an influence the original BioShock had on my own design work. Revisiting Rapture also represented a chance to answer a question on everyone’s mind: What was the city of Rapture like before the events of the original BioShock?
What were the main differences sound-wise when working on Rapture compared to Columbia?
Mostly differences in tone and environment. Going from a generally wide-open city bathed in daylight to a sometimes claustrophobic undersea city requires a very different mindset in terms of design. Within Rapture, we also had a legacy and setting from which we could only stray so far. Had pre-fall Rapture sounded too far removed from post-fall Rapture, we would have broken an important layer of continuity.
Which city did you prefer working on and why?
Obviously, both locales are incredibly inspiring as a sound designer. Columbia is a particularly special place for me because I was able to fully impart my sound to it. Working in Columbia also provided so much opportunity for discovery and development since we were starting fresh.
Can you tell us what lies in the future for you?
Oh if only… In the near future, I’ll be bringing the third DLC for BioShock Infinite to a close. There has been so much progress over the past four years when it comes to audio tech and design. After each project, I look back at what I’ve learned and consider how I can use that information to push interactive audio design to new heights.
Finally to round off, what is your number one tip for aspiring sound designers for games?
Respect your audience. The difference between good game sound designers and a great ones is that the great ones always consider their impact on the audience. Regardless of how much time, technique, and effort you have poured into a project, if the audience is not being served then you are not doing the best job you can. This may mean that your painstakingly designed sound needs to give way to another sound, music, or voiceover. This may mean simplifying your design so that players recognize and fully understand your intention. Remember to design first as a player and you can’t go wrong.
Bioshock: Infinite has been nominated both for the AIAS (D.I.C.E) and the Game Developers Choice Awards, so get clicking below!:
Game Developers Choice
You can also keep up to date with Jeff at his website here: http://www.jeffseamster.com/
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Hope you enjoyed!
The Sound Architect
Interview by Sam Hughes