Interview with Chris Huelsbeck

You’ve been in the business a long time, could you give us a brief summary of where you started out, where you’ve been, projects you’ve worked on and what you’re up to currently?

I come from a musical family; my Grandma, Mom and Aunt were all piano teachers and I started early exploring music. However, classical training was not what I had in mind and I developed my own way of learning about music. As a teenager I became interested in computers, electronic music and Synthesizers in particular, but we did not have the money to buy these expensive instruments. I was very excited when the Commodore C64 was released, since it had a synthesizer sound chip and luckily I had saved some money so I could buy it. I learned how to program in assembly language to create my own games, but music was my first love and soon I was cranking out previously unheard sounds from the C64. Later I won a music contest in a magazine and developed the first tracker-like music editor called “Soundmonitor”.

This was also the time when I started offering my services to games companies and was first contracted, then hired by ‘Rainbow Arts’, the first big developer out of Germany. Notable titles from that Era are “Giana Sisters”, “Katakis”, “R-Type” and the “Turrican” Series. Later I started my own company with 2 friends, named ‘KAIKO’ and released a few games (“Gem’X”, “Apidya”) for the Amiga computer and did some contract work for the Playstation (“Tunnel B1”) among many other titles. In 1998 I moved to the US to join ‘Factor 5’ and worked on the “Star Wars Rogue Squadron” Series. Currently I offer my composition and audio services as ‘Chris Huelsbeck Productions’ and recently worked on a hit iPhone game called “ZombieSmash”. My latest project is “Star Trek Infinite Space” for Gameforge/CBS Interactive.

What sort of training or schooling did you have, if any, before getting into a career in game audio?

Aside from a high school equivalent degree, and about 2 years of piano studies, I’m completely self taught. When I started out, programming was everything, so I taught myself assembly language, developed my own tools and even invented my own scripting system for sounds and music. In the past few years I studied a lot about orchestration from various books and the internet.

Getting into game audio these days is probably a lot different than when you started. From your perspective, are there new skills/qualities that someone should have these days that wasn’t necessary when you started? Or other changes that you see in the game industry that would make it harder/easier to break into the game industry now?

It’s definitely harder now to break into the industry, since there are so many talented people out there who can create great audio; certainly much more people than in those early days, which makes for a lot of competition. I think that besides talent for music and audio in general, the most important quality is persistence. It can take a long time and a lot of effort to network, build up contacts and a steady client base. If you desire to work with orchestras, a classical training and study of orchestration can be of great help of course.

For someone starting out, do you feel it’s better to focus on one area (composing, sound design, VO, implementation), or is it smarter to try to break into the game industry by having a few skills under your belt, and the ability to offer more than one service?

It’s good to learn and have some knowledge in all aspects of game audio, but I think if you have a special talent in one area, you should concentrate more on that.

Having a bit of perspective on your work, which projects have you been a part of that you still look back on a feel extremely proud of, or that have been personal milestones for you?

That has to be the “Star Wars Rogue Squadron” Series, since I was able to come up with additional music that worked within the Star Wars Universe and John Williams’s work, which I also totally adore.

You’ve seen a lot of technology change over the years in game audio, and in the next few years we’re likely to see not only a new generation of consoles, but probably faster broadband and faster cpu speeds…if you looked into your crystal ball, what might you predict in the future for games in general, and then game audio in particular?

Overall I think the industry is moving toward higher and higher audio production and implementation quality. There probably will be a lot more and better real-time audio processing, specially for sound effects and voice. But I think the technology side will probably not leap as much anymore as when we moved from 8bit to CD-Rom/Streaming Audio or at least the consumer will not notice it as much.

When working on a project from start to finish, do you have a favorite phase of the project (gathering source sounds, creating musical motifs, mixing the game, chasing bugs etc)? and if so, what’s exciting about that part of the process?

The most exciting phase for me is when after trying all kinds of different ideas, everything all of a sudden comes into focus, usually about mid-way through the project; when the music finally goes into the right direction and you get positive feedback from the team and the producers. And of course after I complete a project, though I’m also very self critical and I usually appreciate my own work more after some time has passed.

What are some of your favorite games from the last 5 years or so? either from an audio perspective, or just gaming experience perspective?

In terms of gaming, I’m still absolutely in love with the Half Life Series, especially Half Life 2, but from an audio perspective I’m also a big fan of the Assassins Creed Series, Uncharted 2 and Halo.

Interview written/edited by Dren McDonald