The Sound Architect Speaks to Michael David Peter. Michael is an audio director who has worked in the video game industry since 2001 and composes music for games and film/tv. Rooted in a long musical history, Michael is a talented multi-instrumentalist, audio engineer and composer who has excelled at sound design and audio technology, working on many popular video games such as Mass Effect, Dragon Age and Borderlands 2. He lives in Los Angeles and is currently the audio director at The Workshop.
Firstly, Mike thank you for speaking with The Sound Architect today it’s great to discuss your expertise!
Well thanks for the opportunity. Growing up in the 80s, there was no internet, only Mix magazine (and also no high-powered computers that could virtualize what once was the domain of a multi-million dollar audio facility). Things have changed a great deal since then and I’m glad there are so many resources like The Sound Architect to spread information to this tightly-knit community of audio geeks.
How did you career in game audio begin?
Ya know I didn’t get my first sound design job in games until I was almost 30 years old. Before that I was an audio engineer and a musician. My brother is a programmer in games and he often spoke about what a great field it is. I did love games and had a knack for technology as well as audio production so in ’99 I made a demo of some weapon sounds, some monster vocalizations and some music. I stumbled onto a website that listed all the contact info for pretty much every game developer in the world. It was a massive list. I emailed every single one of them and asked if I could send them my demo. I didn’t pay much attention to whether they had an open position or not. It took me two weeks to get through the list. I easily sent out 300 emails. Within 3 months I was offered a job at a start-up, packed my bags and moved to Phoenix, AZ and started doing sound design.
Did you always want to work in games?
So as I said, before games I was an audio engineer and a musician. I spent my youth learning piano, guitar and percussion. I even took sax lessons when I was a kid. But I knew I had some talent in music and it was a satisfying hobby so that’s what I focused on growing up and why I didn’t get into games until later. I loved studios. I loved the whole vibe about it. Dark-lit rooms filled with expensive gear all designed to record music. It’s still a passion of mine and I still write a lot of music on the side (mostly for film/tv libraries).
What has been your most challenging project so far?
Pandemic Studio’s Lord of The Rings: Conquest. I was the audio lead on this project and it was challenging in every way possible; scope-wise, time-wise and tech-wise. It was an immensely satisfying project nonetheless. We had special access to all of David Farmer’s source material in addition to the original score from Howard Shore. So seeing and working with a collection of sfx and music produced for one of the most epic trilogies ever made in Hollywood was a special privilege though it came with the added pressure of having to hit a high quality mark to do the game justice.
It was originally myself and 2 other sound designers and we only had about 6 months to create and implement everything. It eventually ballooned to about 7 people before it shipped and we ended up doing it in 8 months. I believe LOTR: Conquest was the first XBox/PS/PC game to ship using Wwise. I cannot say enough good things about Wwise and Audiokinetic. It’s a great product with equally stellar support but, like all software, there were initially some kinks that needed get ironed-out during its inception. So we didn’t have enough people, or time and we were plagued with technical problems throughout development. Now seasoned game audio people will say “well that sounds like just about every project I’ve ever worked on”, and there’s truth to that, but this one was especially tight and nobody really slept well in 2008. And then it came out and got a metacritic in the low 70s. But the audio got more praise than anything else and, when all is said and done, I can live with that :).
What has been your proudest project so far?
That’s tough to answer. I would probably say Mass Effect. At the time it was a ground-breaking game and, IMO, it achieved a higher level of quality than any game before it. I did a lot of work on that game. I did half of female Shepard’s VO mastering, probably 25-30% of the level ambiences and interactions, the physics system, the rover, the weapon-switching system and I actually wrote and produced all the elevator music (you can find them on YouTube and notice how one of the pieces has 3 different Star Wars melodies in it, though I had to change some notes here and there to avoid copyright issues).
But long before it shipped they took me off ME and put me on Dragon Age, and we also ballooned from 3 sound designers to 7. So a lot of the work I did was retouched or replaced. I know the elevator music ended up shipping but out of all the work I did on it, I’m not sure what actually shipped with it. So it’s hard to be proud of a game that you don’t even know how much of your contributions actually shipped with the game.
My first game, Horizons: Empires of Istaria (now just called Istaria) may trump ME as my proudest moment. I did almost all the audio in that game, half the music and, because it was a custom engine, did it with no tools at all, all of the audio functionality was defined in scripts.
What would be your dream project to work on?
Actually, I guess I’m working on my dream project now. I get to do all the music, all the sound design and I’m working with very talented people who support my creative ideas. I get to focus on the creative aspects that I find rewarding without the ancillary time sinks that usually accompany a leadership position. What I’ve discovered is that technology is always advancing simultaneously with my knowledge and experience. So in that respect I feel like every time I start a new project I feel more optimistic and capable of achieving an exceptionally creative vision. I can only imagine what game audio will look like in 25 years but I bet if we had a peek we would want it right now. So the dream project is always the next project because that’s where the discovery is. That’s the way I look at it anyway.
What do you think is the best example of great audio in a game, new or old?
Every now and then I’ll play a game that I think excelled in their audio presentation. A few stand out in my mind: No One Lives Forever (dialogue and interactive music), Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (audio-centric stealth system and Amon Tobin did the score), Undying (very creative use of audio) and, of course, GTA III for the awesome radio content, plus the sheer amount of cutscenes they did. All of those games really inspired me and managed to up the quality bar in some way or another, though I feel that doesn’t do justice to the great audio work that’s being done. Sound Designers want to work at BioWare, Blizzard, Valve, Ubi Montreal. I could go on but these studios understand the importance of audio and invest in their audio departments and it’s usually evident in their games, which tend to sound really good. The whole industry has improved as far as quality goes. In the 90’s you would find games with dialogue that was so bad you would abandon the game. Extremely poor audio seems to have become rare while quality audio seems to have become more common. So that’s good!
What advice do you give to aspiring sound designers who want to work in games?
The people that succeed in this industry are the ones that are so passionate about it and put so much time into their craft that it shows in their work and their demo reels. My work was good enough to get an interview and a sound design test at BioWare. They sent me a video of the opening cutscene of Neverwinter Nights. I spent a solid 4 or 5 days on that 1:30 long video. Day and night, pass after pass, drilling down to the most minute details I could identify, and while there may have been some frustrations involved here and there I mostly loved doing it. And if you’re that fanatical about it then you might say that you didn’t choose sound design, sound design chose you.
Good sound design is about the details. A sound design friend of mine told me a long long time ago that every sound has a beginning, a middle and an end. There’s always an attack, a sustain, and a decay. He wasn’t talking about the physics. It’s just an approach to how you convey motion. There are very few circumstances when that can’t be applied The theory reveals not the nature of acoustics or synthesis, but that sound has a motion to it, and in that motion you provide the details, you tell the story. The story can be thematic, psychological, symbolic. It’s an opportunity to give greater meaning to everything. So that’s how I approach a project conceptually and also how I approach each sound; what does the sound mean to the project? The beginning/middle/end approach simply directs you to focus on the details, to study the motion, the rhythm of it, and define what’s important about it.
It’s important to listen to other people and embrace their feedback. We all, to various degrees, protect our creative voice. But trying new things and approaching things in new ways only makes you better at what you do. Besides, any industry that needs professional audio will consist of teams, and a hierarchy. Most of these people are not audio people and sometimes you will be required to change things in direct violation of everything you believe in for seemingly tenuous reasons. It’s a downside and I’m pretty sure it pervades every industry and company that will pay somebody to do sound for them, but you should know this going in.
Get familiar with audio standards and incorporate loudness metering into your process. You should know what RMS and LUFS mean and how to hit the loudness standards dictated by the studio or the publisher. If you’re scoring a cutscene that has dialogue in it and that dialogue was already mastered to a loudness standard (or you do it yourself before adding anything else into the mix), then you immediately have an idea of what quiet is and what loud is because it’s relative to the dialogue. So you mix around the dialogue and you discover when it’s appropriate to be balls to the walls and where the threshold of quiet becomes too quiet. Learning this stuff immediately takes you down the path of good utilization of dynamic range, and that’s one of the signatures of a good sound designer.
I don’t know if sound designers in post operate that way because it all ends up being mixed by someone else. But in video games, when many cutscenes are Binked and the audio is packaged together with the video, then the sound designer is often the last person to touch it so everything in that video has to independently adhere to standards.
Any Major Do’s or Don’ts?
Make sure that video is a prominent part of your reel and that your reel is online. Video work will demonstrate a sound designer’s skill set more comprehensively. It requires attention to detail, stylistic choices and environmental effects.
If you’re blanketing the industry with emails, like I did, be personal. If possible, find out who the audio people are and address them specifically. Mention the games the company works on, what you like about what they’ve accomplished and why you’re a good fit for them. Emails that are generic seem spammy and are more likely to be deleted.
Listen to criticism. You won’t always agree with the criticism you get but if you extend a willingness to see things from their side then you learn and grow at a much faster pace. I can tell you that when you work on high profile games or work on large teams, your work will be criticized and there’s always somebody who doesn’t like something about what you’ve done. It’s the nature of a subjective medium.
Have mic, will travel. I had to move from Los Angeles to Phoenix to get my first game job, which seems weird. People who are hungry enough to move locations have a much higher chance of getting in.
Big companies tend to want experienced people. If you have no experience you want to spend some time seeking out obscure start-up companies that can’t afford experienced help. That first job I got wasn’t advertised anywhere except for their website.
What lies in the future for you?
I sure wish I knew that. I’m focused on this current project and making sure it has great audio. The best way to ensure a prosperous future is to invest in the present. If there are bigger opportunities in the future I’ll get those opportunities by achieving things I have control over today.
Hope you enjoyed another fantastic interview! You can keep up to date with Michael at his website and Twitter pages: