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Personal FX: The Benefits of Designing Sound for Indies

Nathaniel Ewert-Krocker | 9 Dec 2013 12:00
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Fehr works on multiple projects simultaneously, too, as it turns out. "Several video games, an independent film, and some other post-production projects that are a bit smaller," he answered, when asked what was on his plate. Since foley work is one of his fortes, he also makes a bit of extra income by creating and licensing sound effect libraries--at least two of which were picked up by Rocksteady Studios.

Does that mean the porcelain pots he shattered ended up in Arkham City? Fehr doesn't know for sure.

He does have some experience working with major development houses, however - he did contract work for Retro Studios on 2010's Donkey Kong Country Returns. "Working on AAA titles comes with a certain amount of rigid structure because of the money behind it," Fehr explains, "which in a lot of ways is really positive for me as a worker. You know you are going to put in a nine-to-five on that one project for a certain amount of time." It was also a positive learning experience for him. "I like collaborating with other audio professionals. I also love working for veteran audio directors. They're super organized, and I always learn a ton from their experience."

There are definite benefits to working with a larger studio.

Vreeland agrees that there are definite benefits to working with a larger studio. "Having extra financial resources is a definite plus," he told me. "The ability to pay to bring in live musicians, pay for services like mastering, and so forth, these are all invaluable. I think that in many cases, bigger studios, especially when it comes to sound design, have great resources and have spent a good deal of time creating robust pipelines that allow them to do really cutting edge work."

Both Fehr and Vreeland were quick to point out, however, that there's a certain focus and clarity that comes with having a one-on-one relationship with a game's creators. "The communication is often more personal and more immediate with indie games," Fehr told me. "You answer directly to the person who created the game a lot of the time."

Larger studios also run the risk of having "more cooks in the kitchen trying to steer the direction of the musical aesthetic," Vreeland added. When you're the only person working on the sound or the music and you're reporting directly to the head of the project, that aesthetic can be more focused.

Of course, there's still room for disagreements in this kind of dialogue. Fehr told me an anecdote about designing sounds for Wind-Up Knight, Robot Invader's side-scroller for mobile devices: "The main character has a rolling mechanic to go under obstacles, and he's wearing a suit of armor. I attempted to go pretty literal with that sound using some foley materials to mimic the metal armor and trying to create a loop of it. The creative director hated it."

A heavy tomato can rolling.

Instead, he suggested something like "a heavy tomato can rolling." Fehr, who happened to have a can of tomatoes handy, recorded the sound of it rolling across the concrete floor of his basement. "I think I was planning to play him the sound and prove it wasn't a good idea," he explained, "but it worked! It's in the game."

Can working from a distance be isolating, I asked him? "Sometimes I don't meet my clients in person until after we have finished our game," he lamented. "But I've been going to conventions for several years now, and I've talked to many people I respect in both AAA games and the indie community at events like PAX and GDC without much of an icebreaker other than my past work. Everyone is connected by our love of our work."

Being a part of that community means reaching out to help others join it, too. Vreeland explained that "one of the nicest things about becoming a bit more visible" is having the opportunity to pass along projects to other artists he respects.

As the number of small development studios continues to increase, it seems likely that Fehr, Vreeland, and those like them will be seeing more and more indie sound designers and composers joining their ranks.

Jordan Fehr designed the sounds for indie hits Super Meat Boy, Hotline Miami, Incredipede, and more. You can check out his website here.

Rich Vreeland (Disasterpeace) composed the music for Fez, Shoot Many Robots, and others, as well as a whole host of original music. You can check out his website here.

Nate Ewert-Krocker writes about games and makes no sounds at all. You can follow him on Twitter: @NewertKrocker.

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