Interview with Aaron Marks

You’ve written a book on a fairly young industry, and it’s quickly become referred to as a ‘must read’, almost “bible” status by newcomers to game audio. How has the existence of the book changed your life and/or career? Are you planning another pressing?

That’s really nice of you to say! Luckily, my new publisher Focal Press agreed with your assessment and insisted we release a second edition. In September 2008 I revamped the book and have been very pleased by the response. The publishing world is an unpredictable place but my editor has hinted the book will be available for awhile and that could eventually lead to a third edition. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

As for how this book has changed my life, it has definitely opened up opportunities I’d probably never have considered or been offered without it, that’s for sure. I’ve never actually sat down and thought about it until now really, but I guess it has had a fairly significant impact. Writing this book led me to co-author another book, Game Audio Development, as part of Jeannie Novak’s Game Essentials series. It also led to authoring the college-level Game Audio course for The Art Institute of Pittsburgh Online. This book was directly responsible for me being invited to sit on the Launch Committee for G.A.N.G., for chairing the Audio Engineering Society Game Audio workshop, for numerous lectures, seminars and speaking engagements and now as faculty at The Art Institute of California – San Diego’s audio production department. Yeah, it’s been a catalyst for many great things!

Career-wise, I don’t have that awkward “I’ve never heard of you before” comment from perspective clients, and that’s been nice. Plus, it’s always a nice ‘resume’ to plop down on their desk – it has some decent heft to it and makes a good thump! But, the most profound impact has been the contact I’ve had with all of the great talent around the globe who are considering game audio as a career choice. I’m not sure there would be any reason to contact me without having that book out there but since it is, and I have my contact info on the last page, I get to meet all sorts of folks. I really enjoy being able to share my experiences, lend a hand when I can and build some great friendships. It’s been really great in that respect!

What prompted you to write the book? and there were probably several reasons, but was there any one compelling reason?

Oh yeah, there definitely were many reasons that motivated me to take on such an involved project, and since it ended up being a year and a half in the making, they definitely ALL had to be compelling! I had been writing a few articles for in the year prior and had been getting some great response, even prompting a publisher to contact me about maybe doing a book. One of my life’s goals has always been to write a book and have it published, and while it wasn’t the novel I was working on that was being considered, it was an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up. After discussions with a few publishers, I went with the one I felt the most comfortable with, was willing to give me total creative freedom and with the most favorable contract terms.

The research and writing process opened up many doors with other composers and sound designers, equipment and software manufacturers and ultimately game developers whom I used as resources along the way. Suddenly people were interested in what I was doing and were incredibly enthusiastic about it. Dolby Labs was so passionate, they flew me up to San Francisco, showed me around their facility, discussed their commitment to improving game audio and even took me to lunch. The response before the book was even released was a sign of good things to come.

Probably the top reason for writing the book, though, was to feed the always encouraging and positive atmosphere that is alive and well in game audio. This is an incredible industry to be a part of and I remain hopeful that the cut-throated competitiveness of other industry’s doesn’t ever find its way into our little corner of the globe. Karma is a huge part of how I do business and writing this book was a natural extension of that.

Was it difficult to find a publisher for this subject matter, are there any stories involved in finding a publisher?

Luckily I never had much to worry about in that department. After a publisher approached me with the idea and I started shopping around, I realized I was at the right time and place. Writing for Gamasutra and Game Developer Magazine led me to their parent company’s book publishing arm with a hearty endorsement – which was really nice. Even after CMP Books was sold, the new publisher Focal Press wasted little time convincing me that we needed a second edition.

The success of the first book brought plenty of book offers from a slew of other publishers as well, which I’m still considering. Of course, I really love creating music, sound effects and doing field recording so I’m focusing on that for the time being.

At this point, what would you say is the percentage of sound design work you do, as compared to musical composition, and do you feel a preference towards one or the other?

I love all aspects of game audio, not only the challenges of each discipline, but the variety and positive benefits of always having something fresh to work on. It’s hard to stay creative if all you do is one thing over and over, so switching gears between composing, performing, creating sound effects and doing voice overs ensures the excitement and enthusiasm for each new project is already full throttle – and I can’t think of anything more perfect from the creative perspective!

Overall, I think, 75% of my business is sound design and field recording with the remaining 25% music and voice over work. It’s funny when you think that my initial focus was on music when I first started – but I’m always happy for any work, no matter what it entails!

Is there any danger in declaring, as an audio professional, that you can cover sound design, field recording, voice over recording/directing, audio implementation, musical composition and production (too much of a “jack of all trades”) ? Or is it better to focus on one of these skills, and work towards being the best you can be at one of these skills?

Having done the ‘jack of all trades’ route for so long, believe it or not, I can confidently say I’ve mastered most of that list – so for me, at least, I see that as a good thing! As a freelance audio contractor, its better for my bottom line to have a multitude of skills and a wider scope of job possibilities. I tried to be ‘just a composer’ for several years but I always ended up getting asked to create sound effects or record voice overs and it seemed like the obvious choice to branch out as far as I could comfortably grow. Now, that’s not to say I have to do everything on every project. If the budget is decent and my business partners are free, then I’m more than happy to let whoever has the most talent, focus on that one thing they are really good at. After all, the end product is the most important no matter how you get there.

There are times, however, where focusing on one particular skill makes better sense. Take composers who write orchestral music, for instance. To do something like that correctly, you need education and experience beyond the ‘self taught’ avenue. And if you focus on it specifically, the chances are you’ll end up knowing what you’re doing and become highly skilled at it, you’ll gain a reputation and the appropriate income will follow. I know many composers who are great at several styles and even then, they’ve focused on just a few – not every genre’ out there.

My advice is to do what you need to do to be marketable and to sustain a lifetime career. Sometimes that means being able to do many things and sometimes it means focusing on that one thing. It’s definitely a very personal decision.

What’s your favorite part of being in game audio? Have you considered leaving to work in traditional media (TV, Film, etc) ? And let’s say you took a job you couldn’t refuse in traditional media, what would you miss about the work in game audio?

I love games, I love the variety of themes, I love the variety of jobs – but, I think what I love most about this business is the camaraderie. We are definitely part of an exciting industry with a myriad of characters and personalities – and it’s great to mingle with them all! There is a very specific common purpose among game composers and sound designers – to make the greatest sounding game possible within the constraints imposed by the technology. This drives us all to share, to collectively solve new challenges and to plan for ‘what’s next’. Working within film and television, there are no new challenges really, and that is their loss.

I have considered working in other areas, if the opportunities are there and its worth my while. I scored a small independent film several years ago which was a great experience but I didn’t have the creative freedom I typically have when working on a game. I’m still open to film scoring but since I don’t do much swimming in that pond, it might be a little hard getting those gigs.

Let’s say you run into an earnest youngster in a Game Stop who overhears you talk about game audio and wants to know more. Besides “reading your book” are there one or two things you can quickly recommend to this person which are “must do” steps in order to succeed in game audio?

Sometimes I get a funny look when I recommend reading ‘my’ book but I always say, if I don’t tell you, someone else will. But besides that, I’ve got a couple other answers handy, of course.
One – you have to ‘love’ games and be familiar with the purpose of audio within the various types of games. Music, sound effects, voice overs – they all have a specific purpose and understanding ‘why’ they are there will help you get a better handle on creating them.

Second – network, network, network! Not only do you need to know other composers and sound designers but the folks who create games, from the programmers to the artists, all of these connections will enable you to learn about how the industry works, how games are created and ultimately give you the contacts to get the jobs. G.A.N.G., the IDGA, the various online game audio forums are great resources for networking. But, don’t forget GDC, E3, SIGGRAPH and even ComicCon – these are where game folks tend to congregate and the best place to meet people with a common interest.

As in many businesses, networking seems to be a big part of becoming successful in game audio. How big a percentage of your work might come from networking? Do you find it better to talk with developers/publishers/studios or other audio kin (or anyone other types in the industry) to find the next job? And where do you like to network?

Believe it or not, I get about 50% of jobs as a direct result of networking, the other half is from referrals or return business. And what’s even more amazing, half of the jobs I get from networking is actually from other composers, sound designers, field recordists and voice over folks I’ve connected with throughout the years. Everything from helping out so they could take an already planned vacation to overflow work to they were just too busy to take on anything new. I’m always flattered when my ‘competitors’ call me up for some help – that’s the true sign that we are all in this together and I’m happy to reciprocate when I can.

My absolute favorite place to network is in line for coffee or sitting down for lunch at GDC. I sometimes purposely don’t hang out with ‘audio’ people and strike up conversations with everyone at my table. It usually ends up with everyone participating in the discussion and exchanging business cards – suddenly we all become connected and it’s really great!

Do you have a favorite gaming story, maybe a moment that occurred because of friends you were playing with, or there was something in a game that blew your mind, or the joy of seeing your work implemented beautifully in a game….etc?

Several years ago when network play was beginning to blossom, I remember the sheer joy of playing Medal of Honor with a dozen of us in the same room, all screaming and yelling throughout the battles. Between the sound of gunfire and explosions were taunts being tossed back and forth, cursing, more jabs, groans and victorious celebrations at the end of each round – it was pure chaos. Man, I don’t think I’ve ever had that much fun playing a game before or since then. Those were some great times indeed!!

Any recent work announcements, or recent projects that you are proud of where GANG members can experience your work?

I’ve got a few hopeful irons in the fire at the moment, unfortunately nothing that I can talk about yet. As for past work, I’m really happy with the music in Tom Clancy’s ENDWAR and The Settlers II – 10th Anniversary and the Traditions Edition. The ‘electro-pop’ music I did earlier this year for bittosHD for Xbox 360, PS3, iPhone and iPad was the complete opposite in style from the ENDWAR orchestral stuff but I’m really happy with how it turned out, light and fun! Most of my best sound effects work can be heard on dozens of class II video slot games found throughout the country – and you even have the chance of winning some money playing those!

Probably the most pride I feel from a game project is the field recording work my team (Watson Wu, Nathan Smith, Matt Scott and Kevin Collins) and I did for Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. After months of locating vehicles and securing the permission to record them from the Department of Defense and the Pentagon, we spent a week in the scorching California desert recording the venerable M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank, Amphibious Assault Vehicles, Light Armored Vehicles, HumVee’s and trucks.

Actually riding around in the Abrams with a microphone in hand was quite an experience, especially since there’s no air conditioning in those suckers! It was quite the victory for us to even have the opportunity to do it – and the pressure to get what the developer needed in a very limited amount of time didn’t leave us with much time to enjoy ourselves until it was all over. But in the end, the recordings came out better than we could have hoped and best of all, they sound awesome in the game!

Visit Aaron Marks at

Interview written/edited by Dren McDonald