James Magee

James Magee
Tank recording
(Photo: Creative Assembly)

I am a Sound Designer and have worked in the video game industry since 2009. I started out at music A-Level and went on to study Music Technology & Computer Software Engineering as a joint undergraduate degree at De Montfort University. I was introduced to sound design at DMU and being an avid gamer, my interest in how game audio was made quickly became my dream job. I was also interested in sound engineering and after university ended up working as a freelance studio engineer recording bands and voiceover in a local studio to build up experience. I pursued a career in game audio and made a lot of industry contacts through networking, bought field recording equipment to build up a sound library, got involved in game-modding and eventually went to study a post-graduate master’s degree in Sound Design at Bournemouth University. It took a lot of hard work and in 2009, I landed my first job as a Sound Designer at Sony Computer Entertainment. I've been working in the industry ever since and I currently hold a Senior Sound Designer position at Creative Assembly in the UK.

Why do you make music?

As a sound designer, I create audio that supports believability and immersion in the fictional world being presented to the audience through a medium. I may write segments of music for a project but usually collaborate with composers on larger projects to help craft a score that fits the overall aesthetic. Sound and music combine to build a rich soundscape that isn't confined to the boundaries of the screen and when used effectively, can help totally captivate the viewer. The audio that accompanies moving image is an important part of the overall experience and without it visual information often becomes disconnected and the narrative hard to follow. Sound design is used in many forms of audio-visual media including interactive sound for videos games, linear sound to film and entirely non-visual sources such as radio, theatre and sound art installation. It has many uses, adding physicality and weight to visual elements, providing ambience, supporting narrative story-telling or underscoring emotional cues. The art of creating sound or music to moving image is not necessarily about being realistic or literal to what is on screen, instead it strives to craft a soundtrack (sound and music) that enables the audience to believe and invest in the world they are transported to.

What music do you make?

Audio professionals that create sound or music for media have many skill-sets and roles that vary depending on the end-product. Film for example, is a linear format and all sound content is applied in post-production by a team of audio professionals fulfilling different sub-disciplines - music composition, sound design, dialogue engineering, mixing, etc. I specialise in video game sound design which has a lot of similarities to film sound in the creation stage but with the added dimension of interactivity. Modern video games have increasingly high-fidelity content such as cutscenes, detailed animation, rich narrative story-telling and stunning virtual worlds. The audience is proactively part of the experience, with the player in control of their progress and behaviours within the game. My job involves creating and implementing audio that supports and enriches the game world, increasingly in more complex and exciting ways. A variety of interesting problems arise from interactivity which may be solved by using game data to manipulate sound and music in real-time, together with a different approach to the way the sound content is created.

How do you make music?

There are many incredible tools out there for sound and music creation, everyone has their own preferences and workflows. I approach sound design using a variety of methods which may include recording source material, using elements from commercial sound libraries, synthesis or a combination of these processes to sculpt original content. A digital audio workstation (DAW) software package is essential for multi-track sound editing, applying of effect processes, creative engineering and mastering techniques. I mainly use Steinberg's Nuendo DAW for my sound design and have previously used Avid's Pro Tools on many projects. If I want to quickly analyse, edit or make small changes to individual sound assets I will use an audio editor called Sound Forge, or if I need to repair audio then iZotope RX is a brilliant tool. For effect-processing there many great plug-ins to choose from, a few I find indispensable are from FabFilter and Waves; the FabFilter Saturn distortion, Volcano filters and Timeless delay effects allow for some cool and unique results, while the Waves 360 bundle is excellent for surround mixing. When synthesising material, I use a combination of software and hardware synths. Native Instruments provide excellent virtual instruments such as Massive which allows for micro control of digital synthesis, and Reaktor which enables the creation of unique modular patches for sound design. There are many hardware synthesisers out there which can be rigged in infinite ways to explore interesting sounds, we love playing around with the modular kits in the studio to create new content. Access to excellent source material is essential when designing sound as good recordings can be shaped, combined and processed more easily. Depending on what I am trying to create, field or Foley recording may be necessary. I have had the opportunity to record a wide range of material for different projects, some examples are military vehicles, horses, guns, remote ambiences, industrial machinery, and underwater hydrophones recordings.

Is any of your sound-based work not ‘music’ as such and, if not, what is it?

Most of my work as a sound designer is not musical in the traditional sense as I am primarily involved in sculpting the overall sound and technical systems of a project, which encompasses sound design, music and dialogue. Sound design in video games is incredibly diverse and challenging, the work is wide-ranging and focuses on creating sound and implementation for many components of the game. I could be designing eerie surround ambiences for an abandoned space station level, a suite of punchy weapon sounds for a shooter, footsteps for a huge monster, or modular engine loops and technical systems for a vehicle. In fact, the entire production of sound and music in a blockbuster game can take an audio team years to complete. Working in video games also involves a lot of collaboration with other disciplines in the development team, as many elements of the game require audio. For example, I may work with game designers to create interactive sounds to support game mechanics, the narrative team to highlight climactic emotive moments in the story, through to bringing character animation to life with vocal or Foley sounds.

How do you describe yourself (e.g. are you a performer, a composer, a technologist, an engi­neer, some combination of these or, indeed, something else) and why?

I think my role as a video game sound designer is a combination of many of these descriptions. Sound design is very creative and the approach is comparable to most forms of music composition and use of sound technology. I work with the frequency, texture, and temporal attributes of sound in a similar way to how a traditional composer would use the timbre of an orchestra, or how a digital composer may use electronic or virtual instruments to the same result. In some respects, regardless of the format, be it musical or designed sound, the product is sonic art that fulfils a purpose or intention. Sound engineering is a crucial part of being a sound designer or composer too. Understanding sound engineering techniques enable the artist to explore and manipulate audio to form original ideas and iterate towards a desired outcome. When innovating with sound technology it helps to become proficient with the tools at your disposable so you better understand how to use them. I would say technologist is also very relevant in video game audio for both sound and music creators. A large part of my job is developing systems to playback sound in real-time, increasing feedback and enabling the player to feel that they are interacting with the virtual world. Designing these systems requires skill in implementation, basic programming and being able to conceptualise how to create sound content that can react in a modular and satisfying way.

What is the cultural context for your work - how are you influenced by music from other cultures or the other arts?

I find my influences vary depending on the nature of the project I am working on. Early in the video game production cycle I will research art forms close to the subject of the game for inspiration; film, music, art or even literary works can all be good references. The tone of the project is explored by the game team through mood boards, concept art, story-boarding and animatic film, and the audio team use these stimuli to spark the imagination. A technique we often use is to design ambiences and sound palettes to concept art to explore ideas, and the composers use a similar process to sketch short cues. When these sound and music concepts are combined, they help inform each other to define a broad audio direction for the game. Story and cultural settings also have a huge influence the palettes and styles that may be used, especially in music. I've worked on historical titles set in specific time periods or locations, that have strongly influenced the instrumentation used in the score and the materials or techniques used in the sound design. When working on the audio for the video game Alien: Isolation for example, it already had a clear aesthetic defined by Ridley Scott’s film Alien (1979) - a gritty 1970s vision of a dystopian future that was in popular during that era of cinema. Technology was lo-fi and tactile with mechanical push button interfaces, analogue bleeps, grainy dot matrix displays and flickering CRTs. The audio team wanted to stay authentic to the soundscape of the original film whilst exploring and expanding that palette for the interactive horror experience.

What skills and attributes do you consider to be essential for you as a musician?

There are key skills and attributes that apply to all forms of audio creativity, from linear media through to live performance. I believe it is fundamental to approach audio creation with an open mind and boundless imagination, gathering inspiration from any sources available to make something original and planned. There are no right or wrongs ways to create music or sound, we should not get hung up on processes like using a particular plug-in or preset, yet it is important to master workflows and tools to allow the artist to realise and develop ideas towards a desired goal. Developing an ear for sound and music is something that comes with lots of practice. In game audio, when I guide junior members of the audio team through tasks, their sense of what 'feels' right for the piece gets better every time until they are producing content that requires little or no iteration. Similarly, experienced composers can quickly write music that fits the brief, conveying the right emotion or pace for a scene or game level. Understanding what sound and music can do on a subconscious emotional level is a very useful skill to apply to performance or soundtrack. When we listen to music live or recorded, watch a film or play a game, the sound and music behind it has usually been thoughtfully crafted to provide an emotional undertone. When we are feeling sad we may listen to uplifting music, or if we want to be scared witless, watch a horror film with the sound turned up! The soundscape is incredibly apt at influencing the psychological state of the listener and this can be used to great immersive effect when manipulated by design.

What are the key aspects of making music/sounds for games?

When creating audio for games, one of the key aspects is to establish the purpose behind the sound and music before starting the creative process. I question what function the sound needs to perform, how it feels with the element its intended for, should it compel a psychological response or provide feedback on a game interaction or event. Consideration of how audio fits into the soundscape at any given moment helps to shape the frequencies and textures I focus on, whether the sound needs to be subtle and build atmosphere during a quiet exploration moment, or colossal and cinematic to provide weight and draw attention. Designed sound is often only representative to its real-life counterpart or may have no grounding in realism entirely; audiences subconsciously expect the presentation of the soundscape to be impactful and exciting, probably because of conditioning through modern cinema and other media. I believe the best sound design seamlessly integrates with other game elements that make up the whole experience, helping to increase immersion and believability without calling attention to itself. Music is often thought to be exclusively an emotional device that scores how the listener should feel during narrative moments, yet increasingly with modern sound technology the boundary between music and sound is blurred. Sound design may be abstracted to resonate with emotional tone, inversely music may be non-traditional and act as sound effects to punctuate on screen events. This is incredibly useful in video games where evolving technologies are allowing us to blend sound and music in more interesting ways than ever before.

How do you work with interactivity?

Video games differ from most other forms of audio-visual media because of their interactive nature and emergent gameplay. Rather than moving through the experience in a linear sequence, the player is in control of their behaviour and progression through the world. The soundscape needs to be able to deal with non-linear action, maintaining immersion whilst working within the resource constraints of the hardware (PC, console, tablet, etc). Sound is very useful in telegraphing gameplay from moment to moment, giving information to the player about their surroundings both on and off screen. A critical tool we use to manage how sound and music is implemented and played back in real-time is the sound engine, with Audiokinectic Wwise and FMOD Studio software being the two most popular engines in mainstream game development. Nearly all sound, music and dialogue is implemented and mixed through a sound engine and this software provides amazing flexibility and creativity when designing interactive audio. Game states and parameters can be fed from the game to the sound engine and then applied to sound structures within, which are created to perform behaviours, a random container of character footsteps for example. Sound or music samples are produced in a modular format to populate these sound structures, often in pools of multiple variations to avoid repetition. An example could be the interactive sound for a laser gun that fires a continuous beam until it runs out of energy or the player releases the trigger. I would design the follow modular sounds:
- Intro sound: multiple variations of a oneshot (trigger once) sound for when the gun starts firing, maybe a rising synth tone with crackling electricity.
- Looping sound: a seamlessly looping LFO sci-fi sound for the continuous beam.
- Outro sound: multiple variations of a oneshot sound for when the gun stops firing, maybe a synthy pulse with cooling metal sound.
The game events required to control the sound behaviour of the gun would be BeamWeaponStart and BeamWeaponStop. I could also apply a real-time parameter that tells me how much energy is remaining and use this to pitch shift the looping sound in the sound engine to subtly indicate to the player that the ammo is about to run out. There is no rule book on how interactive sound should be made and implemented, but the best practice is to design convincing and excellent audio interactivity without consuming too much of the sound engines resource. Music in games is increasingly created in ways that allow for interactivity, composers may separate music into layers that can be introduced or transitioned using game data. The sound engine allows us to set intro and exit points in the music, along with transition phrases to make the score respond seamlessly to changes in game state.

Do you have any other useful or relevant things to say about being a musician in the digital age?

My advice for anyone aspiring to be a musician, sound designer or any other form of audio professional in the digital age is to put a lot of effort into developing your creative and technical skills with music technology, understand the tools and learn as much as you can about the subject. If you want to pursue a career as an audio professional, immerse yourself in it and practice as much as possible. In sound design and music for film or games, develop a stunning showreel that demonstrates both your interactive game audio working in-game and examples of linear sound to film, trailers or game footage. Keep the showreel short (5 minutes max is a good length) and show different examples of your work that highlight a range of abilities. Networking is also very important in building up a relationship with people who could be potential employers. Look out for industry events that have a careers section to talk to recruiters and to hand out your showreel and resume. Write to studios and put in a prospective application to keep on file. Read up on articles from industry professionals to help understand techniques and workflows used by the pros, there is a lot of content out there to learn from. Entry level positions can be hard to find, but if you are dedicated, passionate and willing to strive to impress, it's entirely possible to create the opportunity to get into the audio industries.