An Interview with Audio Director/Sound Designer Nick Peck: Part 1

Like many of us, you found your way into the audio world from your
experience in playing/recording with bands etc. Can you describe the
path that led you from the bay area club circuit to your first game
audio job?

It was all about education. I’d always been fooling around with synths
and samplers, but as I got more serious about music, I wanted to
formalize my understanding, and thus got a BA and MFA in electronic
music. During that time, I became deeply enmeshed in musique concrete,
running around recording the world and then processing the recordings
to make art. I also had a computer programming background and a deep
love of video games, so it wasn’t a big shock that this is where I
would end up.

I was always working at programming jobs to put myself through school.
This was all pre-internet, when multimedia CD-ROM’s were in their
heyday. I would do the programming on a project, then do the sound
effects for it at night, for free. Then I was given the opportunity to
start writing music for some of these projects, and things went from
80% programming, 20% audio production, to 50/50, and eventually to
100% audio production. Working in this parallel industry gave me
plenty of practice in post production, so when the Lucasarts job came
up, I was already trained, and thus aced the sound design test.

So you were at LucasArts back in the days when they were really
solidifying their reputation in the game world, with titles like Grim
Fandango etc. Can you describe a bit about the environment there in
the audio dept, who you worked with while you were there, did everyone
have very strict roles, or was everyone wearing different hats? Did
everyone feel like they were working on projects that would become

Things were so loose back then! There was a casual, wild west
atmosphere that really came from the top of the audio department
organization. These were the days when Michael Land, Peter McConnell,
and Clint Bajakian were running things there – three seat-of-the-pants
musicians just brimming with talent and carving the way forward
through unknown territory. Because Michael and Peter had such strong
technology backgrounds, interactive music was a major driving force
behind the audio there. The tools were stone age, but the musical
quality was unbelievable. I was hired on as a sound designer, but
because of my ability to program, I quickly found myself wiring up
Peter’s music for Grim Fandango as well, using the iMuse music system.
I also ended up helping the scripters program some of the audio events
in Lua. This is a useful thing for people getting into the game audio
world to know: quality is most important, but having a programming
background is very, very helpful.

No one can see the future, and we didn’t really know that we were
working on future classics – at least I didn’t. As I mentioned, we
were really out in the woods making stuff up as we went along. But it
was a different time – there was more of an emphasis on making cool
stuff, and less on budgets and deadlines. Businesses can’t last that
way forever – the industry grows up, sees the profit potential, and
things change. Of course, there are companies that refuse to release
their titles until they feel that they are really ready, regardless of
budgetary or scheduling pressure. Blizzard comes to mind, and their
products are both superb in quality and very profitable. Getting back to Grim, it took a while to get done, but it turned out to be a fantastic piece of interactive entertainment, with great writing, a unique look, and awesome music. Tim Schafer is my hero.

Amongst audio folks, Ben Burtt has become somewhat of an Orson Welles
of the sound design world, and I assume you had a chance to interact
with him during your years at Skywalker Sound. Can you describe
working with him, and the other folks at Skywalker and maybe explain
what your duties and projects were at the time?

Sure. I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting Ben many times and
talking with him about sound design, but I’ve never worked with him
directly. However, one of my greatest compliments came when another
person showed Ben Star Wars Battlefront, which I sound designed. He
reportedly said “yep, that sounds like Star Wars”. I was thrilled!

There are a few names at Skysound that everyone in our industry knows,
and deservedly so: Randy Thom, Ben Burtt, Gary Rydstrom, Chris Boyes.
They are phenomenally talented people. But they are also some of the
nicest people I have ever met, and the tone that they set resonates
throughout Skywalker Sound. The building is absolutely filled with
people who are masters of their craft, but also masterful human
beings. Kindness, politeness, and respectfulness are characteristics
common to everyone who is successful at Skysound, and I do my best to
model my professional behavior on how all of these great people

I’ve worked up at Skysound several times over the years, but the
longest stint was when I went up there to formally bring more game
work into the building. We did the Star Wars Episode III game and LEGO
Star Wars during that time, and helped out on EA’s From Russia with
Love as well. I left to pursue an audio director post at Activision,
but I’m glad to say that more game audio work continues to come to
Skysound. It will always feel like family there to me, and some of my
closest friends still work there.

And did your work on “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” come from
being at Skywalker, or was thru another source?

Nope, through other sources. I’ve known film sound designer Ren Klyce
for over 25 years, and just as I was finishing up Grim Fandango, Ren
called to ask for some help. He was swamped on Fight Club, and asked
me to fill in on some sound design for Being John Malkovich. What a
weird, great film! After that, I built a post production studio with a
foley pit. I’d been working with Richard Beggs, another legendary film
sound designer, on some smaller films. When Spike Jonze asked Richard
to supervise the audio production for Adaptation, I was lucky enough
to land the foley work.

And since you’ve worked as a sound designer for both film and games,
do you find one more challenging than another? one more rewarding? or
is it more about the project and/or the people you work with?

Even though the fundamental aesthetic ideas are the same, the
challenges between genres are quite different. Film work follows a
very standardized, tried and true approach to the technical production
side. You record or collect the raw elements, you edit and massage
them, you lay them against picture in Pro Tools, create premixes,
conform as the picture changes, and eventually mix on a mix stage.
Lots of different people are usually involved, each working on their
own area of expertise: foley, dialog, music, or sound effects. Up to a
few years ago, with games, it felt like you were re-inventing the
wheel with each game. Even now, with audio middleware solutions like
FMOD and Wwise, the successful game audio production personnel need to
be more generalists, and really tech-savvy. Remember, games are
software. We are making computer programs every time we make a game.
The technical aspect is just unavoidable. I think for that reason, I
find the production aspect of working on games to be more challenging
than working on films, though I love doing both.

In the grand scheme of things, we finish a project and move on to the
next one. It’s wonderful to work on projects that are critical and/or
financially successful, because you are getting feedback that the
world likes something that you contributed to. But ultimately, we
spend more time with our co-workers than our families, and so the most
important thing to me is the work environment. A happy environment,
with people who enjoy spending time together pushing in the same
direction towards a common goal, is the best reward that we can get.
Nothing is perfect, of course, and we all have things we don’t want to
do, or challenging situations that we have to resolve, but on the
whole, nothing is better than getting up in the morning and thinking
in the shower about all the things to do that day. When you are really
looking forward to going to work, having laughs with your friends and
co-workers, and giving the project your very best, then you know that
you have it good.

Stay tuned for next month’s conclusion of this interview, where we discuss what it’s like being an Audio Director, how Audio Director’s find team members and contractors, and the best aspects of the game audio business.

In the meantime you can visit Nick Peck on the web at Perceptive Sound Design

Interview written/edited by Dren McDonald exclusively for