Before you got into making sound libraries you were in game audio, could you explain your background in the game industry?
I worked my way into the sound department at Crystal Dynamics in Menlo Park back around 2000 and worked there till 2009. I was thrown into the fire pretty early on, being given the opportunity to create and implement most of the in-game and cinematic audio for Mad Dash, an XBox 1 launch title. After that, we released Legacy Of Kain Blood Omen 2, Soul Reaver 2, Snow Blind and a few external titles that our team was called in to support with content by our parent company Eidos. Tomb Raider was brought over to Crystal Dynamics not long after that and we basically immersed ourselves in making that the more complete audio experience we could build. I think it turned out pretty well and we wound up winning the 2007 Mix Foundation TEC Award for Best Audio and picking up GANG, GDC Choice and BAFTA nominations for the same. I finally shifted over to sample development as a serious profession around 2009, co-founding Tonehammer. And in 2011, I launched Soundiron with my current partners Chris Marshall and Gregg Stephens.
Ddid you have any exciting/interesting field recording experiences while in the game industry?
I always try to be recording something new. I basically spent all my time and money on gear to get bigger and better sounds to work with. I also never left my field bag at home if I could help it. I’m pretty much always working on this stuff. I’ve done character foley sessions in crutches and burned the midnight oil toward final submissions with my jaw wired shut. We’d go on gunshot recording sessions out in the hills and coming across a rattlesnake, my first instinct was to try to piss it off to get authentic rattles. My wife’s a good sport and on the adventurous side herself, so we’d take hikes and wind up down inside abandoned military bunkers slaming old steel doors or out exploring abandoned mining towns pretty often. We’re a little more caution now that we’ve got a kid, but as soon as she’s old enough, I’ll be teaching our daughter how to get in and out of trouble with a field recorder in tow.
Did you come from a musical background? formal training or audio engineering training of any kind?
I played a little of this and that, including a few years of marching band as a percussionist and plenty of local bands. My real education came from an old Tascam cassette 4-track while I was working in the family plumbing business. I had a lot of time, raw materials, tools, college radio and and endless supply of youthful angst. I paid may dues with studio and radio station internships and a bit of community college, but I was mostly self taught.
How did you get started in making sample libraries? for your own use, or did you set out to make commercial libraries?
It was all about creating new resources for personal use. I’m still a sound and instrument designer first. Everything else flows from that. The real starting point for me came from having to try and craft compelling soundscapes with the same overused library resources that every other game sound designer was stuck with back in the early 2000s. It was all rehashed, repackaged leftover film sound effects dating back to the 60s and 70s. Everything was just completely played-out weak sauce. And on the musical side of sampling, there wasn’t a lot out there that really compelled me to create or felt capable of realism.
I also like really punchy, physically present instrument recordings and that’s still something that most sample companies seem to steer away from. Back then, nobody seemed to want to step out of bounds and therefore, everything tended to sound the same – dull, washed out and gutless. There was just too much textbook worship and not enough technical experimentation and innovation. I was really into chasing ultra-realism and at the same time, obsessed with surreal/experimental instruments that could be made playable and replace more conventional instruments – for example the Frendo as a nightmarish stand-in for a cello – and I just wasn’t finding the sounds and quality I was looking for in the really limited mainstream libraries that were out there at the time. Either they were too vanilla or too limited in scope and quality. Honestly, I think that still hasn’t changed a whole lot for the most part, but there are a few awesome creative mind out there in sampling now.
From where I sit, it seems like NI are really doing a nice job with advancing Kontakt, adding scripting features and allowing a lot of sample features that make it a great choice to develop for (and to use, obviously). Has that been your experience? And might you consider developing for other platforms?
At the moment, Kontakt is still our focus. We’ve been exploring Reason ReFills and have dabbled in other formats over the years. For us, flexibility and functional depth are the bottom line and Kontakt is a platform we’ve been working with for years. so we’ll probably be continuing with that for awhile. Native Instruments has also been great to work with.
What have been the most challenging libraries to create for you so far?
I’d say true legato for solo voice is as hard as hell to record right and even harder to program right on the musical side of things. Gunshots and explosions are the holy grail on the sound design side. Recording them isn’t the hard part really if you’ve got the location and resources to do it properly. For me, the real work is taking all of that raw source in post and turning it into something that can punch through shitty TV speakers or earbuds. It’s got to hit hard and command fear. But that’s what makes it fun.
How do you get new ideas for libraries, it seems like you guys come up with some really unique ideas?
Just looking at life as a limitless sound source, made entirely of potential instruments
Anything you can say about any upcoming projects/libraries that might be exciting?
We’ve got an extensive solo vocal library coming up called Voice Of Rapture: The Soprano. It’s a solo operatic soprano library with true legato vowels, various sustain types, staccato syllables, Latin Chants, vocal effects and tons of tempo-synched melodic phrases in French, Latin and pure vowels. It’s a huge library that I think really pushes farther than any other solo vocal library we know of. The content is really brought together by some unique programming that allows a lot of live playability and sequencing options. We worked with Nichole Dechaine, an excellent singer from the LA area. We also just released Olympus Elements Player Edition, a full choral ensemble library based on pure vowels, with sustains, staccatos, marcatos, true legato, choral effects, ambiences and sequencing and performance tools for just a little over a hundred bucks. It’s the ideal choir for most users that aren’t looking for Latin or complex word building systems. It’s meant to be extremely flexible and feature complete, while being totally efficient and easy to dive into. We’ve also got a complete 32 piece symphonic brass ensemble in production (trumpet, trombone, horn and extended bass brass divisi sections + soloists) and it’s got the works. We’ll have more info on that soon.
Any advice for students who might be interested in getting into either game audio, audio engineering, audio in media? And how valuable do you think it is to start learning how to script for a sampler like Kontakt? Can that lead to opportunities to a career in music/audio/sound design?
All I can say is that you’ve got to be recording and experiment constantly. Always put love and pride into every sound you make, but think about what you do in terms of how it can be ever better, more detailed, more realistic and more challenging to capture and how the end user or listener is going to feel that directly. Don’t look for the easiest way to go about things – look for the better way. At the same time, don’t become a slave to orthodoxy. Take what you learn in school and your peers as starting points and possible routes to take, but trust your own ears and instincts first and last. If it sounds better and works better, it is better – regardless of how wildly it deviates from the textbook or accepted wisdom.
Please visit Soundiron to hear some of the wonderful sample libraries that Mike and his team have put together. And keep an eye out on various contests here at GANG as we’ve offered many different SoundIron libraries as prizes here. GANG thanks Mike for taking some time for this interview as he’s been CRAZY busy putting some new libraries together for SoundIron.