Interview: Steve Horowitz and Scott Looney on Making a Name For Yourself in Game Audio

It's become harder than ever for musicians to make a living releasing albums, however, scoring for video games has provided a major source of revenue. Learn how these two veterans of the Music for Gam  

Steve Horowitz and Scott Looney are the authors of our brand new Game Audio courses. Rounik Sethi caught up with them to talk about their background, how they got into game audio, what gear they use and how their Game Audio series will help composers and sound designers to get into game audio.

RS: Can you tell us about your background, how you got into music and game audio specifically?

Scott Looney: I would say I'm a more recent convert. I come more from the teaching or training perspective. I've done a lot of work in interactive audio in terms of developing rich audio for Flash websites. It wasn't until I had been teaching at the Academy of Art for quite some time that I had an opportunity to write a course on sound for games. And at almost exactly that same time I met Steve, and he mentioned that he had lots of experience doing this '" not only did he have lots of experience, he was developing curriculum to teach it! So I thought it was an incredible meeting, and I decided to take advantage of that. 

Scott Looney and Steve Horowitz

RS: For you Steve, did you start originally teaching, or composing?

Steve Horowitz: Just to highlight a couple of things that Scott said, everything about he and I meeting has been very fortuitous and strangely led us to where we are now. We've been circling around each other for quite a while. Scott also failed to mention that he's a fantastic piano player and a great musician and that's how we originally met here in Berkeley. For me, I started to play guitar when I was 6 years old in Miami when my family moved there. Then just before High School, we moved out to Berkeley and I went to Berkeley High, which has an award winning jazz program. The guy who ran that program, Phil Hardymon said: "Well, I'll give you a bass and if you want to go home and learn how to play it, you can audition to be in the band!" And I did and got into the band and I really found my instrument. I switched from guitar to bass and I've been a bass player ever since. I come from pop and rock music, and I started to get into Zappa and more contemporary classical music. I had done a bunch of it and recorded my own bands and my own projects. I was doing a lot of record production... I engineered an album, True Life Blues, that won a grammy for Best Bluegrass Album in 1997. But I started to get into writing music for games in the early 1990's. I met a fellow named Mark Miller who ran a company called Nu Romantic Productions who did a bunch of music for Sega and Sony and Crystal Dynamics. He got me started in interactive media. He asked me : "Have you ever thought about making your living writing music for games?" and I was like "No!!!" (Laughs).

RS: Back then, it must have been a completely new thing. In the 1990s, computer games were still considered quite nerdy. 

Steve: Oh absolutely! In the 1990s, the CD-ROM revolution was taking place and suddenly you went from game sound just being what people think as bleeps and bloops to full digital audio scores. As a composer you would be working with live instruments and that was the start of game music growing up into the big world of competing with film music. Here in the Bay Area, there was what they called Siliwood, the combination of Silicon Valley and Hollywood. So that's how I basically come into writing music for games. I thought I was going to get out of CalArts and write weird music and die poor, and then suddenly I found myself scoring for games. And back in the day, when someone said: "We want you to do the audio for a game", they meant everything: music, sound effects, voice over, record it, produce it, get it all processed in the right way and in the right file format... That was always the interesting challenge. The cool thing about doing sounds for games is you get to do a lot of different things!

Scott contemplates the first title he worked on called Cadillacs and Dinosaurs.

Scott contemplates the main challenges when creating music and sound design for games.

RS: What was the first game that you composed for?

Steve: One of the first for me was a title called Cadillacs and Dinosaurs by Rocket Science Games. They finally only made a few games and they were all really crap so they went out of business like the year after! (laugh) I then did music for Sega, for a lot of their titles. One of my favorite was Roach Racers. I ended up running the audio department at Nickelodeon. I worked on hundreds and hundreds of games, some small, some big, on every platforms, everything from Xbox, Playstation, Wii, all the way through to downloadable games for all their titles: SpongeBob, Wonder-Pets, Dora, Diego... 

RS: So you have a little bit of experience then... (laugh)

Steve: Yeah ! (laughs) One of the first projects I worked on there was a streaming radio station that they wanted to do. They said : "We want to do this radio station. It has to be about barnyard animals and music". So I went into the studio and I had these sample libraries, and I made drum kits. The Hi Hat was a chicken, the snare was a bullfrog and I thought : "This is really weird!" I was really wondering what they were going to think about this, but they said :"This is great! Can you make more of this?" I almost thought I was on candid camera or something... and that's when I knew I really found a home. Part of my time writing music, part of my time doing sound design, and the other part of my job was as a technology evangelist: understanding what the new technologies and audio capabilities were, and how you could apply those to the different platforms. 

RS: How did you find the transition from writing traditional music to composing for games? What are the main challenges of game audio?

Scott: One of the things that really appeals me about game audio is how much mileage you can get out of a finite amount of data. You had to be incredibly creative with incredibly small amounts of space for your data. And that personally appeals to me greatly, more so than just saying oh, here's the game soundtrack! How do we use an adaptive kind of way so that the music and sounds are never quite exactly the same? If the player is playing for hundreds of hours, it needs to be reasonably fresh each time so it's not just repeating loops. That's one of the thing that I was really excited about.

RS: Can I ask you both to name any particular games that you are really enjoying at the moment?

Scott: I'm playing a game called Endless Space, which is a 4X turned-based strategy game. It's pretty fun and feels a lot like Civilization. Three or four years ago, I was like: "Gosh, I wish there was a Civilization kind of game in space for the Mac" and this is literally it! Now I'm addicted, but of course I don't have any time to actually play it!

Steve: Well there are a few titles I'm thinking of. One of them I keep coming back to it is a game called Limbo, which is a black and white side-scroller with truly wonderful sound design. Another one that I tend to play quite a bit is Mass Effect. There's another cool game we played recently, called Naughty Bear. Nobody really knows about this title. It's awesome! The stuffed bear doesn't get invited to a party, and then things go really bad after that. There's no blood, he's just defluffing bears. It's like a first person bear hacker game! What's cool about it is they did this adaptive score to it and it's so effective. It starts out and the music is really happy, but as his mental state changes, the score goes really dark and twisted.

RS: On to the tech-side of things, what do you guys use to do sound design and composing in terms of equipment?

Scott: You don't need a gigantic setup to do sound for games. I can tell you that it is possible to write music for games with a minimal setup. You don't necessarily need a $6000 Mac Pro with 32 GB of RAM and every single orchestral collections known to man in order to just begin writing music for games. Honestly, the thing is most games don't use that kind of quality music in the first place. Often times there's a huge Chiptune interest, literally using a tracker to just make simple little bloops and bleeps. I think it is much more important for game audio composers to know some middleware. There's not that many that's available for the Mac, there's only one really and that's FMOD. For this reason, I would say that it's not a bad idea to get really involved with running games in Parallels, Bootcamp, or Wineskin because so much of the stuff runs on PC. If you only have a Mac, you're really missing out on about 75% of what's out there in terms of interactive audio type of situations. 

Steve: A rig for creating sound and music for games is really not that different from what you would use for scoring for films, TV, or whatever it is. You're gonna have a Digital Audio Workstation of some sort, you're gonna have a bunch of plugins. You may do a Heavy Metal score for one game, you could do an orchestral score for the next. Whatever rig a composer has now for doing their scoring to picture that's working for them, it's going to work for games.

RS: Can you name a few plugins or DAWs you are using?

Steve: My rig is fairly simple, I do everything in the box. I use a lot of IK Multimedia stuff. I still use the original SampleTank library, but I also have years and years of samples that I've recorded myself, of strings, drums, sound effects and all sorts of things. I use the Waves plugins a lot, especially the L1. As for DAW, for me it's Pro Tools. Scott is more of a Logic user...

Scott: I'm definitely a Logic Pro user! It's my tool of choice. I use a lot of Logic's built-in plugins as well as IK stuff. I also use many shareware plugins that I think have interesting and unique kind of qualities. For electronic type of music, I really like Mr Alias, which is a really crazy sounding totally non-musical synthesizer. I've used some of the u-he plugins, specifically the Zebralette. I find it a little easier than the regular Zebra, which is wonderful but really huge. I also use Airwindows plugins, Michael Norris Spectral tools, SuppaTrigga, and Livecut to name a few...

Steve: There's also the programs that we've been mentioning, like FMOD, which is an interactive and adaptive audio engine that's been around since 2002. There's also another program called Wwise, which is a piece of audio middleware that people should know about, and XACT, on the Windows side of things. So you have consumer audio on one side and on the other side you have these tools that are specifically made for integrating your sounds into games.

RS: What role do you feel your macProVideo Game Audio titles are gonna have in helping composers or sound designers getting into game audio?

Scott: The idea is that composers and sound designers need to see what is relevant to games. It is very important to make the case that, especially in a piece of software like Unity, you cannot get very far without having to learn how to script, which really means writing code. Most people don't have programming skills, because they've been spending most of their time making music. So we have to gently tell them: "sorry if you want to really get into game audio, you need to learn how to program because there is just no other way!"

Scripting in Unity.

Scripting in Unity.

RS: Do the courses focus on the scripting side as well as the theory behind game audio? 

Scott: Yes. The first course deals with the theory, in terms of the terminology. Things like understanding branching and looping, and adaptive music...

Steve: Think of the first tutorial as like if you came to us and said: "I'm interested in getting into sound for games, what's involved with that?" And we would be like: "Okay, do you got two hours? Here's what's involved!" (laughs). Basically we cover everything, from why early video games sounded the way they did and how to produce and compose your music and sound effects and make that works for games with small footprints, all the way to orchestral scoring for games. We also cover using very advanced engines like FMOD, which is a toolkit for the creation and playback of interactive audio. All that kind of stuff! So it's a BIG overview of terminology and basic industry practices and the things that you absolutely should know about game audio.

Start off your journey into creating Game Audio with this video course on Game Audio 101

Start off your journey into creating Game Audio with this video course on Game Audio 101: Demystifying Game Audio.

RS: So your courses are the best place to start learning about game audio. If you had to highlight one particular point that mark games as being fundamentally different from films in terms of producing music or sound design, what would that be?

Steve: The top number one, I'm sure Scott will agree, is that games are interactive. Working in games makes you think non-linearly and interactively. If you're writing a piece of music for a certain level, how long does it have to be? How long is the player gonna stay there? If he goes left, does the music change? If he goes right, does it change into something else? Every time you touch an object, does it sound the same? Or does it give you a hint or a clue that something else is happening the next time that you touch it. It's a wonderful challenge to create a music score that can fit together and can be done in any size, shape or form or in any sequence and still work. It's a very different way of thinking and a different workflow that takes time to master. 

Scott: I agree! And making music and sound for games is a lot like building a website. You have to put your all your sound assets in one place and you have the "website" essentially determine how you're gonna hear those sounds at any given moment.

RS: That's a great analogy! What would you recommend for emerging artists and sound designers if they want to break into composing or doing sound design for interactive media like games?

Steve: First and foremost, make sure you like games! Understanding the language in terms of esthetic is also very important, to understand how sound is used in games. And not just with big budget titles... It's not just Halo, Call of Duty and those games. You also need to understand what's happening with the iPad and the iPhone these days, and new ways to play like cloud gaming... Essentially, I think enjoyment and understanding of games are fundamental if you want to get into game audio.

RS: Thank you so much for your time guys, and thanks for creating this exciting new addition to the macProVideo course library!

Check out the new Game Audio series on here.

Rounik is the Executive Editor for Ask.Audio & macProVideo. He's built a crack team of professional musicians and writers to create one of the most visited online resources for news, review, tutorials and interviews for modern musician and producer. As an Apple Certified Trainer for Logic Pro Rounik has taught teachers, professional... Read More


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