Interview with Watson Wu

A bit about Watson: Watson Wu is an energetic and highly skilled composer, sound designer, field recordist and technologist with an impressive list of credits on a myriad of large scale projects. His music can be heard in everything from video games and films to trailers, DVD menus and popular music libraries used around the globe. His sound design and field recording adventures have brought him face to face with everything from the mighty M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank, guns and weapon systems, incredible exotic automobiles to animals such as orangutans, alligators and flamingos. His versatility and talents keep him in high demand.

So you recently had a project released with The Transformers title. Could you describe a bit of what you did for this title (which game sounds were you responsible for, what sort of field recordings did you make to start designing these sounds, were you implementing sounds as well etc…)?

During the development of Transformers: War for Cybertron, Activision/High Moon Studios contracted me to audition and multi-track field record various exotic, muscle, and truck vehicles. When you think of Transformers, you would imagine beastly engine and exhaust sounds. Both Audio Lead Rob Burns and Rodney Gates (Rodney is now Audio Director at SOE San Diego) at High Moon Studios were very specific and provided me with Youtube links of the ideal engine and exhaust sounds. Most in-house studios with a good audio department like High Moon Studios implement their own sounds. Through my numerous car contacts I started the auditions. Once both guys liked certain tests recordings, I then scheduled a full multi-track production with all of the car owners. For the selected cars and trucks I very carefully taped and zip tied various lavalier mics in the engine compartment as well as the exhausts areas.

Because High Moon Studios wanted so many assets including car engine/exhaust, bys, doors, hoods, trunks opening and closing, I had to think of a different way for mic placements. All of the mic cables were routed to the rear window into my four track field recorder. After this lengthy process of mic placements, taping, and/or zip ties (sometimes up to three and a half hours), I would sit next to the owner/driver and direct him as to where to go and how fast to travel. Typical games involving cars require two to four variations of each of the RPMs at either an increment of 500 or 1,000. Some of the car owners I know are The Best to work with. One guy Steve White took his stunning Porsche Carrera GT to 125mph and a few times at first gear up to 9,500RPM! Another great guy John Corcoran pushed his Super Charged Corvette up to 150mph!

How long have you been in game audio, and did you know, after college/trade school etc, that this is the direction you wanted to move in, or was there a roundabout path that you took to get her? if the latter, please describe the ’roundabout path’.

I’ve been involved in game audio since 2001. It was a roundabout path with the necessary skills I picked from college and live sound engineering, recording, and mixing that transitioned me into this industry. My studies in college were classical music education, composition, theory, music technology, music business, and choral/instrumental conducting.

After completing school I read a music technology magazine that had interviews of a few composers who worked fulltime for video game companies. This struck an interest because I played loads of video games and loved the music and sound effects. The actual first step for me was when I found and several times read Aaron Marks’ book The Complete Guide to Game Audio. I did what Aaron suggested and attended both GDC and E3 where I met many industry related professionals.

Once you understood that game audio was what you wanted to pursue, was it hard to find work and get your reputation/name out into the industry? What were some effective methods you had for pushing on into the industry to become successful? Lastly, how long did it take to become established so that you were fairly confident that ‘the next gig’ would always come along?

Breaking into the game audio industry was quite difficult. I had to allocate a large sum to attend both GDC, E3, and also dared various marketing schemes. Every year I would recreate my business cards with updated credits, etc on the backside. A few industry professionals have advised me to capitalize using my catchy name and profile look. Hence, my avatar is always easy to spot. You have to risk in order to achieve some kind of success. Unfortunately I’ve learned that the best sounding composer and/or sound designer can’t always acquire work. It’s the business, marketing, and negotiation skills that can help you win the bid or a fulltime position.

What other projects have recently been released that we can point the GANG members towards so that they can experience your work?

Along with Aaron Marks, Codemasters contracted us to field record military vehicles for the title Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. It was great to work The Marines and record the M1A1 Abrams main battle tank and other armor plated massive humvees and trucks. This game is available on XBox360, Playstation3, and PC. For my music, check out the hit British TV show It’s Me or The Dog, Attack of The Show on G4TV, Australia’s Got Talent, and various NHL live hockey games.

What’s your favorite part about being in game audio? and why?

My favorite part about being in the game audio is to be able to create music and sound effects I enjoy. The people who are in this industry are very kind and great to work with. I’ve turned down projects that called for country music. It’s just not worth it when I can’t stand that genre!

Do you also create music for games (or any other media), or are you largely involved in sound design? If both, what percentage of each do you, on average? and do you have a preference?

I also compose music for games and other media. Some of the big titles I’ve worked on are Sony’s Warhawk, Gretzky’s NHL, Trivia Pursuit DVD, and Serious Sam II. Lately it seems there have been more sound design and field recording gigs vs composition. While I’m working on a fourth album for my music publisher in London, I would say it’s a fifty/fifty breakdown of both music and sound design.

Any favorite games that you are playing lately? and what makes them fun for you?

With the lack of time, some of my favorite games I often play are the Need for Speed series. A quick fix with a three or five minute car race is always fun! I’m still trying to beat ProStreet. Tuning to perfect a controllable drift car is quite difficult, LOL! My newest favorite game of course is Transformers: War for Cybertron. I’m a huge fan since the 80’s cartoon!

Do you think it’s important for someone in game audio to have played lots of games, or at least play a little bit, or do you think any established audio professional can create sounds for games (i.e. they can do it for TV or Film, they could work just as easily in games?)

I think anyone working in this industry should be a gamer. Many of the established film and tv composer or sound designers can provide the assets. However, they should at least play the popular titles to understand video games.

I get the sense that most game audio people have a HUGE sense of responsibility towards creating something original, wonderful, and appropriately amazing…often staying up late hours, and never really ‘clocking out’. Maybe I’m wrong about that observation, but if you’ve experienced similar passion from game audio professionals, how do you account for that? It’s not something we often encounter in insurance professionals, or court reporters, or school janitors…why do we see it in such large percentages in game audio?

There are many game companies that often go through crunch mode where all of the employees work some serious overtime. While I believe in hard work, sometimes this goes too far. I know guys who many months every year slave away and literally live at the office. Activision/Blizzard is a great company who doesn’t have to do crunch modes so they can release a game by Thanksgiving. This is the time when most companies try to release their titles for a potential huge Christmas sale. Blizzard however can release a new game or expansion pack regardless as to what month of the year it is. They have so many hardcore fans!

In music, there is all sorts of ear training we can subject ourselves to in order to hear better (to quickly identify intervals, chord types, rhythm etc) do you know of any such ear training for designing sounds? any exercises? good examples to listen to? bad examples?

Sound effects are music to my ears. I often like to rewind and listen to the same gun shots or explosions from some of my favorite movies. Frequent exercises like listening to The Matrix and Lord of The Ring series is a good idea. I’ve often said to prospective sound designers to do live concert mixing (rock, jazz, and classical) as well as take part in traditional music theory and ear training. Learning to discern intervals like a tritone or a major 7th is always grand. Some of the current schools like Full Sail, Art Institute, and Expression do offer courses to learn how to design and record sound. Full Sail’s faculty members Tom Todia and Chris Latham really stress their students to record as many original sources as possible. I very much agree with them!

Visit Watson at

or follow him on twitter @watsonwu

Interview by Dren McDonald