Interview with Alexander Brandon

Can you give us a bit of history in your game audio career? When you broke in, some titles you’ve worked on, and latest projects?

The first time I did any audio for games was writing music on the first soundcard for PCs called the Ad Lib. It was one of the first if not the first “piano roll” interfaces commercially available that allowed you to write music on a computer. I wrote a number of songs for my first game with my friend Jason Emery and we published the game (Tyrian) with Epic Megagames (now Epic Games). Since then I worked on some of Epic’s largest early projects like sounds for Extreme Pinball, music for Unreal and Unreal Tournament, and since then I’ve worked on several dozen others including Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows, Deus Ex, and more recently Alpha Protocol and the upcoming MMO Gods and Heroes.

What sort of education or background did you have to prepare you for working in game audio? (and are there any college/trade school programs available currently that you would recommend?)

I learned game audio specifically all on my own but learning synthesizers and music composition and theory, piano and vocal lessons helped considerably. I recommend a solid music education in some form, it doesn’t have to be college necessarily, but knowing basic music terminology and concepts, basic engineering concepts and sound design principles, all those things help and they’re present in any audio creation medium whether for movies or tv or games. Today programs I would recommend are those at Pyramind in San Francisco as well as Pinnacle College in LA which has the first bachelor’s degree in game audio, and several other schools have great courses such as UCLA Extension and Savannah College of Art and Design with their excellent CoMotion event, and a masters program in Leeds, UK run by Richard Stevens.

In creating game audio, we often find ourselves creating a quick character voice on the fly as part of our sound design gig, but in addition to sound design and composing skills, you can REALLY do V/O!

Thanks ๐Ÿ™‚ Voice I think is what strikes people as the most prominent talent because I don’t need to play anything on a device, I just talk.

Did this talent arise from the need to add voices to a game project over the years, or did you start out with acting? Do you find that you might get more projects because you have all of these skills? Do devs like to go to someone for a ‘one stop audio shop’?

Since I was a kid I memorized and impersonated characters from movies. It’s a great party trick and fortunately has come in handy on many a project, people will just ask me to record a voice and I do it. It’s a lot of fun. As far as a one stop shop goes it really depends on the relationship with the developer. Often people will have a preference for what they take out of house and what their internal resources offer. Voice is one of the things that goes out of house most often but it’s a catch 22. Most big game houses have well established agents and studios they work with already, and smaller studios usually don’t require VO. But it definitely helps.

When embarking on a new project, what helps you find the flavor of the game most effectively: artwork? gameplay? story? talking to game designers? How can you best approach this if you are working remotely on a project? And if you are given little more than a spreadsheet of sound assets how do you go about approaching that project?

Just about everything helps but what’s critical is solid communication with the entire team, or a system that gets results by having that communication with a single point of contact like a producer or lead designer. Another critical element is of course the game itself. It’s very difficult to do audio to a captured movie, and if asked to create sound effects for a spreadsheet that can be an incredible waste of time. Timing is important, context is important, framerate, there are so many factors that affect sound / music / voice that you need a solid understanding of the game itself before creating assets. You don’t see texture artists just blindly doing textures anymore. They look at a greybox level and a ton of concept art first. Then they go right in to the editor and not only texture it but they light it and ensure the surface mapping is solid as well, this is why theyโ€™re called environment artists, not texture artists anymore. The same is true for sound. One of the things I love doing is concept audio. Create a high level demonstration of the sonic experience and base design of your assets from that. Saves a lot of time and money in the long run, but people don’t usually think with that process in mind for a dev cycle.

Other than audio skills and knowledge, what other skills do you find important to maintain a career in the game industry?

Communication skills and the ability to hustle are number one. If you have your own shop, working on what makes you unique and high quality is super important. Competition is absolutely brutal nowadays where when Tommy and myself were starting out hardly anyone was doing what we did. You have hundreds of people giving out music for free. But, if you’re in house and part of a team, you need to be able to sell what will work best for planning the studio’s process for internal audio and how best to balance in house and out of house resources. A lot of that comes with experience. But another element is technology and understanding how games are made. If you’ve no clue about a typical schedule, what kind of average budget a game of a certain size / genre will have, you need that info. Hm… maybe we should make that available to G.A.N.G. members? ๐Ÿ™‚

I imagine you have both directed VO sessions and been directed in VO sessions…are there strategies that you find always work well while directing a voice session? What sort of direction helps you as an actor, and what sort of direction to you like to give when working with an actor?

Directing a session really has to do with making sure you make the actor(s) aware of the pacing and context, because they usually don’t see anything. This I think should change and we should follow the footsteps of Cameron and his creation of the head mounted unit where the actors can see their 3d generated environment. Amy Hennig and the team at Naughty Dog have a good version of this process simultaneously capturing motion and voice. But it has a lot of evolution before we can create truly compelling performances. Having said that some developers have very clever ways of getting around the human factor: Valve and 2K (Bioshock). As a director I like to let the actor interpret within the context as much as possible, but I also have what I call a “Lucas” style, where he would instruct all the actors in Episode 4 of Star Wars (A New Hope) to deliver lines “faster and more intense”.

As an actor, I love to see context if possible but if it isn’t possible, keep the screaming lines until the end of the session. ๐Ÿ™‚

Do you have some favorite game titles that you feel really raised the bar in voice acting? And what had that title done differently?

Hell yes, Bioshock and Portal 2 have some incredibly good voice acting. Portal 2’s Wheatley can get a bit too chatty but overall Bioshock’s pacing was brilliant. The writing was very well done, table reads were done well I’m sure and the results were scripted and paced in the game itself to achieve the best impact. Valve does this as well. Studios are catching on to the importance of this and I believe many more games will start taking it seriously in the coming years.

Do you have any predictions on what we may see in the future game industry? more Kinect-like devices? more free-to-play game models? more procedural audio taking place?

I would say that downloadable content will become a lot more prevalent but that is somewhat obvious. I also see motion based games as a growing sector, hence why all three console manufacturers have embraced it in some way. But it needs to find its footing. Honestly I think that holographic displays with touch sensitivity in space will be along before long. And for procedural audio, go SoundSeed! Voice is not far from pretty good reproduction and musically I think that synth rather than samples should also not be that far away.

But with all this tech, the creative aspect and how the user interacts with it is what counts. I would say to practice with making the best possible audio experience in the span of 30 seconds as you can. Redo Asteroids or Pac Man, or Angry Birds, and do it in chunks. Create money shot audio. It’ll help your demos, it’ll help convince the producers / designers of a vision, and above all it’ll make people aware that bigger or more isn’t necessarily better.

Interview written/edited by Dren McDonald exclusively for