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Personal FX: The Benefits of Designing Sound for Indies


For a couple days in the fall of 2009, Jordan Fehr brought home cuts of meat from the deli at which he was working part-time, climbed the stairs to the tiny apartment he and his wife shared in Columbus, Ohio, and spent a couple of hours slapping meat against the kitchen counter. Finding quickly that ready-to-sell cuts of meat were too dry for his purposes, he turned next to turkey fat and eventually things like yogurt and wet noodles in his search for the perfect squish.

Turkey Fat. Yogurt. Wet Noodles.

Fehr was doing contract work for Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, the two developers who make up Team Meat. He’s a sound designer who belongs to a small but growing community of freelancers who cater to indie developers. He’d brought meat home from his day job in order to record sound effects for what would soon be one of the runaway hits of the burgeoning indie games movement: Super Meat Boy.

The rise of indie games has created a cornucopia of small development studios, many of which consist of only a handful of programmers and artists. The advent of digital distribution and the growing prominence of mobile gaming have allowed “small” games to become huge successes, and in the last five years, we’ve seen plenty of games that embody the creative vision of just one or two people. (You can probably list a handful off the top of your head: Braid. Fez. Minecraft. )

One of the effects of this cultural shift is the emergence of the group to which Jordan Fehr belongs: freelance sound designers and composers. While many indie developers are capable of compressing the roles of designer, artist, and programmer into just one or two individuals, most find it easier to outsource the sound and composition to specialists.

That’s what Polytron Corporation did for Fez: they hired Rich Vreeland, more widely recognized by the moniker “Disasterpeace.” Vreeland’s score for Fez is gentle and ethereal, accenting the game’s emphasis on thoughtful puzzle-solving. It possesses a very distinctive sound.

“I think there is generally more freedom on independent, lower budget projects,” Vreeland told me when I asked him about why he preferred working with smaller studios. “A lot of the projects I’ve gotten involved with and am excited about just happen to be by small, independent teams.”

Five or six years ago, people like Vreeland and Fehr might not have been able to make a career out of working primarily with independent developers. As the gaming landscape has changed, however, being a freelancer is increasingly feasible.

“I’m one of the lucky ones, at least for the moment,” Vreeland explained. “I would say that the success I had with Fez has really opened the floodgates for me in terms of work opportunities. I still occasionally reach out to people if I’m really intrigued by a project, but most of the opportunities have shown up at my doorstep.”

“There is generally more freedom on independent, lower budget projects.”

In addition to being able to pick and choose the projects to which he contributes, working on multiple projects at once helps Vreeland to be nimble–at a time when layoffs in development houses are increasingly common, freelancers are affected significantly less by the cancellation of a single title. When Phil Fish suddenly and publicly declared that he was abandoning Fez 2, for example, Vreeland had several other projects to turn to. “It was definitely a surprise,” he told me. “Luckily it was early on, so I didn’t lose too much of a time investment.”

“Right now I’m involved in about fifteen projects,” he said, when I asked him what he was currently working on. “Some are very small ongoing things that don’t require lots of time, while others are fully fledged games. Some projects involve writing music, others are scoring gigs, and some are small sound effects jobs for mobile apps.” Freelancing means wearing many different hats.

Vreeland’s working on four separate Kickstarter projects, including Hyper Light Drifter and River City Ransom Underground, both of which funded in October. He’s also working on an upcoming Vita title called GunHouse and a Steam release called Cannon Brawl.

Isn’t that a bit much to take on at one time, I asked him? “It may seem like a lot, and at times it does feel that way, but in reality, since all of the projects are being developed under different cycles, it gives me time to move from project to project when I am needed. Some of these games are almost done, while others won’t be finished until late 2014 or 2015, so being involved in lots of projects secures my future work schedule.”

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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