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Interview with Veteran Sound Designer: Seph Lawrence

If you want to know how to get your start and succeed in any field, it is extremely insightful to learn how others have navigated their career paths. Over the last 25 years or so, Seph Lawrence has served as Creative Director, Sound Supervisor and Sound Designer for companies like Futurity, Blizzard Entertainment, Raven Software and currently, Torrential Audio, “Creators of unique recorded and designed sound effects for all types of media”. In my interview with him that follows, he generously offered to share his unique perspective, experience and advice for emerging sound designers.

PM: Can you talk a bit about your background and how you got into Sound Design for gaming?

SEPH LAWRENCE: Well it all started with 10 years of piano lessons starting at age 5, which eventually grew into a much broader passion for all things audio. As a young teenager, I would often go to the movie theatre and become intrigued by the sound of films and often think to myself, “I would have done that differently”. Even though I had absolutely no idea how the process worked. This, mind you, was before the term Sound Designer had even been coined and professionals in that industry were still using banks of mag reels and splicing and scraping tape to achieve the end result.

But what I took from those early inspirations was the realization that I had an intense interest in all things audio long before knowing how or if I could ever evolve that into a career. And even though I didn’t know it at the time, I learned that I not only had some pretty good instincts towards the craft but over the years also began to trust in those instincts and I became more experienced. Although, it took me until my late 20s to stubbornly admit that I might also want to do something other than just be a musician, and add Sound Design to my skillset. When the gaming industry was just beginning to unfold, I took a great interest, not only as a player but also in how games were created.

From a chance phone call, I landed my first job at a local Silicon Valley recording studio that did subcontracting for games. Everything I did there was un-credited since I was a sub-subcontractor. But I didn’t care because I was working and gaining experience. My first game was Gex, on 3DO and Sega Saturn. Since there weren’t really any sound design schools when I got my start, this early experience was invaluable and gave me the confidence and knowledge to go forward.

A couple of years down the road, a chance meeting on the street with game audio legend Matt Uelmen turned into a contracting job for Blizzard North on Diablo II and eventually into a full-time sound design gig on Diablo III.

PM: What are some of the positions you’ve held in the industry and what were your responsibilities?

SL: One of the most memorable and satisfying positions was as Sound Supervisor on the Diablo franchise at Blizzard Entertainment. What made it so gratifying was that I was able to wear many hats (sound design, music, field recording) in my position and those hats were closely aligned stylistically with the type of work I like to do. My main function was to oversee all aspects of audio production to ensure that all the music and audio in the game supported the goals of the design team while simultaneously creating a satisfying and compelling sound environment in which players could run around and kill monsters. This included weekly review meetings with each designer to discuss aesthetics, technical strategies and direction for the work at hand. Always keeping an ear on how each designers work fits into the overall sound and whether or not it is adhering to the agreed-upon criteria I defined for the whole game. An example of one of the pillars I enforced readily was that there was never any audible delay repeats or extreme use of flange or chorus. The overuse of these types of effects stuck out like a sore thumb in the natural and organic world of Diablo. Even though it’s a world built on fantasy and there is no corollary between real life and many of the things that take place in the game, I wanted the sound of the game to have a certain quality of realism if at all possible. As if someone walked up to you in a supermarket parking lot and launched an arcane projectile, you might find the sound believable and think, “hmmm… that’s believable”. Another thing we avoided for similar reasons was using any obvious synthesis techniques.

My duties also included things like managing people, doing employee reviews, managing offsite contractors, creating budgets, working with the production folks on scheduling and participating in public facing events like Blizzcon and various other trade shows.

Another responsibility was identifying sound effects we would need to record and planning and organizing offsite sessions to capture them. We recorded lots of organic type of effects like rock, water, animals and many interesting fire effects. We dropped a huge boulder on a car and rode a coasting bulldozer down a hill to record the sound of the clanking treads. And of course, it wouldn’t be Diablo without lots of gooey, bloody, flesh ripping sounds. So there were many trips to the grocery store for the usual vegetable and meat sessions.

Before Blizzard, another stop in my career in the early 00’s was founding a small company called Futurity, a retail sound effects business for selling my SFX. We created the Metropolis Science Fiction Toolkit series on CD. This was particularly gratifying since I pretty much just made the sounds I wanted to make without regard to game design or engine limitations or deadlines. Just pure creativity.

PM: Could you describe a typical career path for someone seeking a sound design position in gaming and what advice could you offer to those seeking their first job?

SL: I’m not sure there are any typical paths to earning a spot in audio for gaming. Mine certainly wasn’t. It is by far the number one question I receive from folks trying to get into the industry and for me, one of the most difficult to answer definitively. I’ll offer some suggestions as food for thought on what I look for as a manager when hiring.

Having a degree can be helpful but isn’t an imperative. In one case when I was trying to fill a junior position we had many candidates who had degrees but we ended up choosing someone who didn’t. The decision was instead based on the fact that the candidate we chose had a unique natural talent and a great attitude. By no means am I suggesting that school is not useful, far from it, but rather is just one of many possible paths, albeit a good one. The trick is to figure out what’s right for you.

Always be making something. Whether you have a job or not you should always be creating new material, whether it’s new SFX, demos, learning a process, etc. Setting and completing small achievable goals for yourself is a great way to keep building your skills and experience, and the self-discipline you will need to be a successful professional. Nowadays there is absolutely no excuse for having the right gear. The barrier to entry in terms of having some decent tools to succeed is lower than it ever has been. Reaper for example, with stock plugins, has everything you need to make great sounding audio at a professional level at a very reasonable price. Make something!

Search for where opportunity intersects with preparedness and make sure you’re prepared. As you read earlier in this interview my career was jump-started with a bit of luck through a chance meeting. But I was also prepared. I had spent years leading up to that moment creating my own sound effects, building my personal library and sharpening my skills in any way I could. When an opportunity comes along, you want to have demo material you are proud of and are ready to share with potential employers.

Know your own strengths and weaknesses; don’t apply for positions that you aren’t qualified for. If someone has no experience and they apply for a senior design position it simply makes me think that they are not good at self-evaluation and aren’t being honest with themselves, and may not be about other things as well. That’s a bit of a red flag for me. Give yourself the best chance to succeed by aiming for the right job at the right company.

Research the audio aesthetic in the games from the companies you are applying to. Is there any synergy between your work and the company’s? If you are great at SciFi, for instance, it could make more sense for you to apply to companies that are in that genre. Don’t get me wrong, it’s both good and possible to be a well-rounded designer who can work successfully in any genre, but if you have a strength and you are just getting started, why not focus on it and use it to your advantage. Very often I would get demos for both music and design from people trying to get work, but they don’t include any examples that reflect the type of work they are applying to do. For instance, I would get EDM tracks from musicians applying at Blizzard. That’s simply not where that company normally lives stylistically, so immediately that candidate is discounted because we have no common basis from which to judge whether or not they might be able to do the work. Know your audience.

Having any kind of previous professional audio experience can also help you land that first game audio job, even if it’s unrelated to games. One possible path would be to seek out odd jobs with local studios or production companies that need part-time help. Any audio related experience you can put down on your resume is better than having none. I know from my own path that my early audio production experience, unrelated to gaming, came to good use later in my career, not only as additional experience on my resume but also as useful and practical knowledge for my work.

Familiarize yourself with the companies to which you want to apply and the products they make. Find out who the audio people are that are working on those products and try to find ways to get to know them. This is a subtle art. These are a very busy bunch of folks who don’t usually have a lot of extra time to respond to unsolicited inquiries like social media invites and messages. Don’t take it personally if you don’t get a response. And try to avoid sending unsolicited demos (for legal reasons some companies forbid their employees from listening). I’ve always had a keen interest in helping new people get into the industry but have always been unable to afford as much time as I would like to do so. This is a sentiment I’ve heard from many colleagues over the years. So how do you get past that?

Try looking for other ways to connect in environments that you might have a better chance of casually interacting like trade events or audio presentations. Finding ways to strategically place yourself somewhere you can socialize can make all the difference. The important takeaway is to work on establishing a rapport and personal connection with those whom you’d like to work with. They are much more likely to consider you for a position when one opens up if they have met and liked you outside of the official pathways. Of course, it is still important to follow the usual channels and always have a resume and demo ready to roll. Applying online can still lead to a job. But when combined with the steps mentioned above, your chances of getting a resume pushed to the top of the heap increase significantly.

PM: What technical skill sets do you think are essential in terms of entry-level positions?

SL: From a nuts and bolts standpoint at a bare minimum I would say that mastery of at least one industry standard DAW if not all of them is essential. Pro Tools, Reaper, etc. Some studios enforce a standard on tools while others do not, so it’s best to be fluent in as many DAWs as possible. Audio middleware acumen would be another area to focus on. The fully-functioning free version of Wwise (only limited by file count) is the best place to start. You can learn a lot of practically useful things just by going thru the tutorials and doing your own experimentation and building prototype projects. The more you can learn about audio implementation tools the better. Things like min/max distance and falloff curves, priority systems, dynamic mixing and bussing systems. Building your own prototype projects is a great way to learn. You could try partnering with an up and coming animator to collaborate and learn together.

Another big one for me is basic knowledge of signal flow and how it is applied inside and out of a DAW environment. Granted you can get interesting results from plugins by not using them in orthodox ways (one of my favorite things to do), but not having the skills to use plugins for mainstream audio tasks with expected results could limit your career. Signal flow knowledge is also a key component to effective troubleshooting in any game engine. Without it, you’ll be lost.

Another important component to becoming a successful audio professional is having at least some minimal skill and acumen with various non-audio related productivity software such as Excel for example. Staying organized can be the difference between success and failure when you are under steep deadlines.

PM: What personality traits or communication skills are essential for sound designers?

SL: Well, they call it work for a reason, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. I always prefer to have people around me who take that to heart. Very often things can get intense and stressful near deadlines. The stakes are often high and in those moments I want to be surrounded by level-headed professionals who are able to keep their cool when things get tough and perform at a high level while still maintaining their composure and sense of humor. It’s not always achievable in all situations but it’s still my preferred environment. In short, don’t be a jerk. Show humility and assume you can learn something from everyone around you while you also teach. And always try to contribute to a solution. There is no quicker way to making yourself invaluable to a team than to be a positive contributor who always helps others when problems crop up.

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But above all else, I value honesty. One great example I like to use: Often in-game tools the various systems and constructs are extremely complex. Due to scheduling and resource constraints, it’s possible that a junior person might be the only individual that views or works on some particular game system or assets before the ship date. Say for instance they discover a mistake they made that falls under their responsibility and needs extra attention, possibly a lot of attention. Do they sweep it under the rug and hope someone else will catch it? Or, do they bring it to the attention of their manager even though it may get them in hot water? To me, it’s imperative that the latter occurs. I’m very tolerant of occasional mistakes, we all make them but what’s important is how we react and resolve them that really counts. If I can trust each and every person on the team to take personal responsibility for their work then we will all succeed together.

PM: Is it necessary for a sound designer to have programming skills?

SL: Generally the more expertise you have the more desirable you could be to an employer. The answer to this really depends on any given company and what their needs might be. Larger companies with bigger budgets tend to hire programmers to be programmers and designers to be designers, while a smaller company might tend towards someone who can wear both hats. If a company hires you to be a programmer you will be vetted on that criteria, not as a sound designer and vice-versa, unless they are specifically looking for one person to handle both roles. I’ve also seen people who were hired as designers and over time express interest and aptitude for programming who slowly morphed themselves into a hybrid position. That worked for the company because there was an obvious need to fill and they grew into it out of necessity. My opinion overall is that it’s becoming less and less relevant for sound designers to also be programmers because middleware has gotten far more mature than it ever has been and more companies are using it. But that being said I also encourage everyone to grow as many skills as they have the aptitude and desire for. It can only help. But we will always need good audio programmers and they are usually in very high demand. My general advice would be to choose one or the other.

My preference is to hire great designers who rely on great programmers to provide great tools for them to use. Freeing up designers to focus on what they do best.

PM: Can you describe your experience in recording sound effects in the field and the equipment you prefer to use?

SL: Field Recording is one my favorite parts of the work I do, one that I am always excited and passionate about and one that despite doing it for over 25 years am still learning new things about all the time. Getting out into the field, thinking up new techniques to use and subjects to record is a key method for continually feeding my inspiration for design. I’m constantly thinking about it and always have my eyes and ears open to potential subjects in the world around me. I consciously use my recordings as a tool to manufacture inspiration. Bringing new effects back to the studio and dropping them on the server always has a stimulating effect on my work. But I don’t typically record things for the purpose of capturing realistic, literal hard effects, although those are sometimes needed too (footsteps, car bys etc). Rather I’m often looking to capture audio subjects that I know will feed my inspiration for design as well as fill a specific need. When I’m recording things to stoke the creative fires there are various techniques I use to get results that inspire me. One great example of this is using proximity effect as a design tool. Normally for realistic natural sounding effects recording you’d want to avoid any proximity effect. But if my goal is to create interesting design fodder there are certain microphones I’ve discovered over the years that I use specifically for how they sound when you get them a little too close to the subject matter. The Sennheiser MKH 416/40/50 are all great examples. I find with these mics (and others) I can get a nice lower-mid bump and make something that is normally kind of small sounding into something massive. Completely transforming a mundane subject into a usable inspiring basis for further design.

Another way I like to use proximity effect to my advantage is something I call micro recording. It’s a technique I stumbled upon by accident many years ago and have been experimenting with it ever since. It’s akin to digging for buried treasure and attempting to reveal something undiscovered like a scientist might with a microscope. Consider exercising some caution with this one since I’m guessing it’s possible to damage a mic if you aren’t careful (although I never have). Always start off using very low levels since this method can produce some very hot signals. In a nutshell, it’s simply placing the mic extremely close to what would normally be a very quiet sound. A sound that you would normally overlook and never consider recording…ever. An example would be to place the mic (a shotgun works really well for this) pointing directly at the carpet with the diaphragm approximately ½”-1” from the surface. The distance will be different for every mic and will require some experimentation with both distance and subject matter as well as how you are performing the sound. Now, for example, use your fingernail or credit card (experimentation is key here) to scrape along the carpet trying different pressures or directions etc. Sometimes with the mic that close, there is only a small area where you will experience any decent results depending on the polar pattern. Try different objects and surfaces like cement, wood, cloth, anything goes here. This method will most likely never yield any useful literal SFX, but I have used it countless times to create some very inspiring and unique textural springboards.

As far as specific gear goes for recorders, I’ve relied heavily on my Sound Devices 722 for many years since they were first released. I also recently picked up a 10T. Add to that various Sony and Zoom handhelds. For mics, my go-to rig is usually a Schoeps MK8/MK41 MS pair or a Neumann RSM191 for trickier environments. For ambiences, I use a pair of 8040s in ORTF, a Telinga parabolic or Crown SASS-P. The Telinga is definitely one of the more fun mics to use. I have it on an articulating gimbal so I can move it around hunting for interesting points to stop and capture. With it set up this way, I’m often able to capture a large variety of distinctly different flavors of the same environment that all share similar DNA. Great for when you are building out ambience for a game level that requires variation. I just picked up a Sennheiser AMBEO and am just starting to experiment with that. I also have a collection of Lavs, hydrophones and contact mics and the usual sacrificial SM57s. I make a point of always having my recording rigs ready to grab and go at a moments notice so I don’t miss anything that occurs spontaneously. In this same spirit, I usually keep a handheld recorder in the glove box of my car.

One final tip, whenever I’m sick with a stuffy nose and sore throat, I always try to get in front of a mic and record some snorting, scratchy, throaty goo noise that only happens when you are sick. This stuff can be solid gold for making monster SFX. It can certainly feel like the last thing in the world you’d want to do when you aren’t feeling well but you’ll thank yourself later for the sacrifice.

PM: I understand much of what is used in terms of gaming software engines is proprietary. But can you talk about what is used in terms of DAWs, plugin suites, hardware, outboard gear, etc.?

SL: In the places I’ve worked it has been mostly up to each individual as to what they like to use, although there is usually some symmetry for things like monitoring, SFX databases, etc. As far as DAWs are concerned, at the time I left Blizzard, Reaper was being adopted more and more for sound design. Pro Tools was still king for post-production duties and probably will be for the foreseeable future. The folks in the music department used a little bit of everything, Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic, Reaper, Ableton, etc.

For me, I’ve always taken a hybrid approach between hardware and software. For some things such as reverb, I still prefer hardware, although this is becoming less true all the time. So if recall isn’t important for the task at hand (usually when I’m in design mode) I reach for the Eventide or Bricasti boxes for verb and other effects.

We are lucky to be experiencing an incredible renaissance in the stompbox market. They’ve never fallen out of favor for me and I’ve amassed a decent collection over the years from which I derive a great deal of satisfaction from the tactile experience of creating with them. How I feel when I’m creating has a direct impact on what I’m making. I think it’s too easy for us humans to lose awareness of the importance of a tactile connection to our creativity. Especially when we are just using a keyboard and mouse all day, every day. I get the same benefit from my Eurorack rig which I have set up mainly to process external sounds rather than to use as a synth. It’s always a great tool for creating raw source material. I’ve also relied heavily on my Kyma system for a long time which is a whole separate universe.

As far as plugins go, I use most of the usual big bundles. I’m always looking for little quirks and edge cases with plugins. I find that many have some little not so obvious feature or unintended use. I like to hunt for those in various ways.

Some of my favorite plugins are the u-he, Infected Mushroom(Polyverse), SpectraLayers(Magix) and Ina-GRM stuff. I’m also digging Reformer Pro and the plugins from Output. I use iZotope RX a lot for what it was intended, but even more for what it’s not. I’ve also got my eye on a little company called Freakshow Industries, whom I expect to see some interesting things from in the future.

I have an old trick I like to use with plugins. Opening your plugin folder can sometimes be downright distracting and overwhelming from the sheer quantity of choices. We can debate the difference between compressors or EQs all day long, but do we really need 50 of them in most cases? I would agree that there are technical and creative reasons for using the many choices we have, but sometimes all those choices can feel more like a burden than a benefit.

So herein lies the trick. I keep many different versions of my plugin folders for different purposes and swap them out as desired. Many of them contain a simple set of plugins like one or two EQs and Comps, some design related things and some utility plugs like Gain, Invert, Metering, etc. It may seem like a limitation at first, but after doing this for a while you can start to feel the benefit of having fewer choices. I’ll go a step further and say that the limitation itself can push you to excel in other ways you might not have imagined because you are never challenged to do so otherwise. And you may think that you could simply do this without having different plugin folder versions and just choose a few from the list. But I would submit that the act of removing them and having different versions so you don’t even see the other plugins, can have a huge psychological impact that might not otherwise occur.

Taking this idea even further, as an exercise I have many copies of my plugin folder that only have three plugins. I sometimes let my friends or family members who don’t know anything about audio choose the plugins for me, thus removing any prejudice on my part. For example, try choosing a delay, pitch shift and EQ. Then force yourself to create some interesting results from just those three plugins. It can take quite a bit of experimentation and you may find it difficult at first, but as you press on, it can lead to unexpected ingenuity. For example, I find that the lack of choices can turn my focus more towards discovering creative editing techniques or finding idiosyncrasies and features in the chosen plugins that you hadn’t previously been aware of. The point is to create hunger and force yourself to find new ways to eat. Try it, you may be surprised, but don’t give up too easily. You’ll get out what you put into it.

PM: There seems to be a lot of secrecy in the gaming world. Is that based more on technical issues or is it more about plot lines and content?

SL: In my experience, the technical stuff isn’t usually the driving force behind the secrecy other than the obvious things like network security or proprietary server-side stuff etc. Rather, it’s more for protecting things like plot lines and features from competitors and surprising players and press with impactful announcements. Another thing to consider is that game features and storylines can often be in flux right up until the day the game is released. Companies may not want to overpromise something that they might not be able to deliver on time or decide that something isn’t working and cut it at the last minute. So keeping things under wraps until the ship date can simply be a byproduct of the decisions being made as a result of the development process.

PM: Any final words?

SL: If you got this far, congratulations. My comments are born out of my own experiences and have served me well. There are usually many different ways to do most things in audio and I’m quite certain some might have a healthy disagreement with some of my comments, that’s OK. So take what I’ve written, use what makes sense to you and discard the rest. Then apply your own experience and intuition and blaze a trail forward. There is no one set type of career in audio. There are so many niches and interests it is up to each individual to learn and define what a career in audio means for them and what drives them to create.

Happy hunting!

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Philip Mantione

Philip Mantione

Philip Mantione is a composer, synthesist, guitarist, educator and sound artist active in the LA experimental music scene. His music has been presented in festivals, museums and galleries worldwide. His current project is TriAngular Bent, an electroacoustic trio featuring Don Preston (founding member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention) and circuit bending virtuoso, Jeff Boynton. Details at philipmantione.com

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