Breaking Into the Video Game Music Industry
An Interview With Kevin Knapp
Kevin Knapp is a musician who was been creating game audio for over 15 years, with compositions published and distributed by the Torque game-engine developers, GarageGames, and GameSalad, the designers of the eponymous indie game-authoring tool. His personal journey is fascinating and quite unique and his experiences along the way are like gold-nuggets of advice for the many fledgling musicians looking to squeeze their way into the video game industry and let their talents blossom. But, don’t worry if you’re here just for the music: his masterpiece Castlevania remix album, which he created for the 25th Anniversary of the Castlevania franchise, is almost mandatory-listening for any self-professing video-game-music-lover. [Castlevania: Arua of Holy Might has 10 tracks and has 28:43 worth of material.]
How did you, personally, get into game audio? What was your unique journey?
Up until the PS2 era, I bought and collected all systems and a ton of games from the Atari 2600 to current at the time. When Mp3 encoding debuted back in the mid 90’s, I started ripping and collecting tons of game music like crazy. Eventually, this motivated me to buy my first Keyboard workstation: the Yamaha PSR-530. At the time, I didn’t know anything about anything related to making music, and I’ve never received any training as a musician. Slowly but surely, I started hammering out random chords, bought a chord chart, and figured out how to play songs along with the accompaniment features. I started off by remaking themes for Double Dragon, Castlevania, and Super Turrican along with a bunch of other random stuff. At the time, computer/cable internet technology was just starting to establish in the late 90’s, so I spent a lot of time buying keyboard workstations like the Roland EM-2000 and the Korg Triton.
The first time I experienced a breakthrough in software was in 2000 when Acid Pro and Sound Forge became available. I also liked using the Ejay tools. Even though I still didn’t know anything about midi at the time, I could at least learn how to cut, edit, and arrange samples from instruments I would never be able to learn how to play.
As I progressed in skill and developed a ear for music, I hit a roadblock. There were too many technical mistakes that I didn’t understand how to correct every time I tried to make new music. To remedy this, I went to school for Audio Engineering at Full Sail Real World Education from 2001 – 2002 where I completed an Associate of Science degree in just one year.
There, I learned additional computer knowledge, technical/audio terms, recording skills, post production, live sound, and studio session techniques that I’ve used for life. Ever since then, I’ve continued my education to learn how to make new music on my own. The biggest breakthrough from this education was learning and understanding how to use MIDI for composition. To this day, I can’t read or write sheet music, but I can make arrangements that will numb your brain with a computer.
With today’s advances in computer software and recording devices at lower prices, almost anyone can get into making game music on a budget without paying for a formal education. I will say that if you have a strong foundation on the technical side of creating and perfecting music that you’ll have nowhere to go but up as long as you keep practicing your craft.
Do you need skills as a musician or composer in order to begin creating game audio?
If you have a natural ear for music, and are willing to sink a ton of time into your work you don’t. However, if you already are a skilled musician and work with other skilled musicians, you can certainly save a lot of time putting your ideas together.
Formal music education can be a double-edged sword. If you’re taught how to play or compose in a certain style, you have a foundation to build on. I took a “Do what sounds good” approach to arrangements and layering sounds. By using chord structures and combinations of instruments with effects that aren’t traditional, I found myself able to create music that professional musicians can’t play because of speed, style, and technical difficulty. If you’re never taught what techniques are right and wrong, you run less of a risk of limiting your approach to what should and shouldn’t be done in making music. Personally, my experimental efforts have lead me to create a music style that cross blends electronic, rock, and orchestral elements all at once.
What kind of secondary education or field of study would reinforce an audio job/career in video games?
Programming, Computer Hardware, Audio Software, Business Management, Business Administration, and Entrepreneurship education will help you build a strong foundation for the game industry. Personally, I’ve never learned the programmer component because I’m not the strongest math guy. I do know how to edit and write simple scripts in certain game engines. All other items listed are things I’ve been learning side-by-side with music for over 16 years. Personally, I have an A.S. in Business Administration, a B.S. in Business Management, an A.S. in Audio Engineering, an A.S. in Meteorology (Served in the Air Force), and I’m currently working on a M.A. in Communications & Leadership.
Having the willpower to constantly want to learn more is necessary if you’re thinking about working on games. Technology changes monthly. Companies want you to know everything from music, programming, and business everything to function in their fast-paced environment. Then, just when you think you finally got a handle on everything, get ready to change again. That’s just how things work in the game industry. Everything is constantly evolving.
What kinds of tools should someone use?
You need to start with a DAW or Digital Audio Workstation software. This is the foundation for composing, arranging, mixing, and even mastering your music. If you’re starting out with no musician skills like I did, I recommend using software that has easy midi composition, easy signal flow, and can use loops to quickly arrange professional sounding music with little to no knowledge of audio.
My personal favorite tool is Acid Pro 7. If you don’t want to spend $300 after trying the demo, you can buy a $65 version that’s streamlined for casual use called Acid Music Studio. Sony has a deep library of royalty free music libraries that are cheap and allow you to basically assemble your music like a puzzle. Only the puzzle pieces you use with this software can be assembled in just about any way you see fit.
Additional equivalents with different setups are Ableton Live and Fruity Loops. The premise is the same, but the workflow is arranged differently.
If you want to get very technical on the midi composition side, Cubase is significantly better than Acid specifically in randomization and composition options. However, you will need a moderate to high level of knowledge to signal flow to setup your creation sessions, and importing / previewing / using loops is more cumbersome.
If you’re MAC user, Logic Pro is an audio DAW whose entire interface is customizable and modular. You can literally assemble your own interface to suit your workflow. This DAW is also owned by Apply and is embeded to the OS for optimal performance. If you’re a PC user thinking of switching to a MAC, the switch will be too technically daunting unless you have a Logic expert as a trainer.
Last but not least is the elephant in the room, Pro Tools. Recently, you can use their software almost any major sound card recording interface when before you had to buy their proprietary overpriced hardware. Let me be blunt. I’ve been trained professionally to use Pro Tools, and I’ve sold Pro Tools at an online retail vendor at one point. If you’re actually going to record a band and want all control possible, you want Pro Tools. If you want the most control possible for mixing and mastering a recording with an unholy amount of high end plug-ins, you want pro tools. However, you must pony up big $$$ for Pro Tools, and its updated yearly. If you’re just starting out, Pro Tools is weakest in midi / loops / one man music creation. If you’re going try the one-man band thing like I’m doing, the work flow is cumbersome.
This is the industry standard, but you must also have the knowledge to understand and attempt to use Pro Tools. Like Cubase, it’s moderate to high difficulty, but if you want to dabble in midi and use loops or record yourself playing a track at a time, it’s not the most economical for the buck at the moment.
For mastering, cleaning up audio, and fine-tune editing, I strongly recommend Sony’s Sound Forge 10 Pro. It’s $375 and there’s an Audio Studio light version for $65. All I’m going to say is this. Every game company I’ve talked to or looked at for editing, creating, and designing sound effects uses this software. It’s also used for fine tune editing to marry audio to video for game cinema’s. Sony’s Vegas Video is the video suite version.
What kind of computer do you need?
If you have to go to a Best Buy to get your computer to make pro audio, you’re doing it wrong. You need at least mid to high end processing power with enough ram and a fast enough hard drive to create audio properly. You want to get a computer with a Quad Core processor, 8GB ram minimum, and a SATA 2 or 3 hard drive that’s at a minimum 7200rpm. Preferably, you want to install your OS and run your audio software on a Western Digital Velociraptor Hard Drive that runs at 10k rpm. If you have the knowledge, buy 2 and set them up in a Raid 0 configuration to maximize performance.
When making game audio, you have a choice. You can go a store and buy a keyboard with a few hundred sounds for thousands of dollars, or you can buy virtual instruments for hundreds of dollars that have 10x the quality and selection at a fraction of the price. The offset is you need a nice CPU to make it happen.
Sometimes, running one virtual instrument can instantly tie up 4GB of ram just by turning it on. Other times, you could have a ton of tracks and plugins going all at once, and if your hard drive isn’t fast enough or you’re lacking RAM, you can have processing lag which adds superficial pops, clicks, and sound artifacts into the final product of your music.
You also need a nice sound card or external sound device with good Analog to Digital and Digital to Analog converters. You also want to find a device with the lower SNR (Signal to Noise Ratio) while recording and rendering your music into files. I don’t have enough time to go over the many nuances of why this is important, but you should consult a professional audio sales person to find a device that’s right for you for your budget. At a minimum, you want to get the best “Pro-Sumer” cards made by Creative. Above that, you’re going to pay 3x to 20x the price to get started.
Do’s and Don’ts of trying to land a game audio gig:
Your resume must be perfect. You must tailor each job you apply for specifically to the company and position. You must send a cover letter with your resume. You must have a demo DVD and / or links to your portfolio on a website. You must be willing to accept rejection. You have to realize that for every 100 jobs you apply for, maybe 10 companies will say thanks for applying. Two of them me write you back asking questions. One of them may give you a phone interview, and there’s a 50/50 chance that the same one company may want to meet you. If you don’t live local to the company, this may hamper your chances further.
If you have other skill sets in game design, IT, business, or accounting, try to get into a game company using the strengths you have now. After the company gets to know you they may provide opportunities or training to switch roles later.
Always show that you have a positive attitude. Always convey that you’re willing to relocate anywhere in or out of the US at your expensive to work for them. Do make it a point to say and show in any interview or written correspondence that you’re passionate about doing this job. Anything less attitude-wise will get you no responses regardless of your qualifications.
Don’t expect any company to provide you software or equipment to do your job. Already having the tools and software that you can bring with you saves the company time and money. Don’t expect them to train you how to use their pro audio software. Professionals are expected to be proficient with the job requirements before applying. If you say you’re an expert in something and you’re not, you better be willing to cram it into your brain before you start should you get an offer. Even then, you’re jeopardizing your opportunity by lying or embellishing your actual knowledge.
Most importantly, if you’re asked something you don’t know, always say that you’re willing to learn and immediately think of an example of how your work that relates to what the interviewer is asking about. This way, an interviewer can at least think to themselves, “Ah, this person gets what I’m asking. They just haven’t done exactly what we do. We can definitely get this person up to speed.”
Can’t find an employer to make game music? Create your own job!
This is the route I went after getting small bit roles on and off over long periods of time. In the last 2 years, I’ve had a chance to get a couple of my own music libraries published by GarageGames and GameSalad for the Puzzle and 2D Classic shooter genres. In between these projects, I’ll work on remixes or random pieces to be able to showcase my music at a moments notice. Examples of my published music can be found here and here.
Perception of audio in the game industry:
In my opinion, audio is still the bastard child of the industry. The only exception is when a small handful of AAA titles are created is there a budget for full-time dedicated audio staff. In many cases, games are created over a period of a few years, and if the content is approved by the executive producer (Usually the financial backer of the project), then the polishing touches are put on the game. Throughout production, the development team usually has placeholder assets in use to test the game for environmental audio or timing errors related to audio. In many cases, an audio professional or composer is brought in to compose, mix, and master a final product within a small window of time. If you have the balance and ability to wear the hats for all these roles, you can stay busy. By nature, this particular position isn’t designed for stable long-term employment. That’s why I personally work full time, go to school, and work on audio in my free time. It’s not that I don’t want to do this professionally forever, I just realistically understand from experience that there’s a time and place for audio guys to do their work. That time and place is not from start to finish during production in many cases.
Working on video game audio is a very fun and rewarding experience if you set out to learn and do it for the love of games. Once you decide to commit to spending big money on equipment and education, you have to completely commit, or risk being disappointed. There’s a lot of people out that are naturally gifted, well funded, live in the right area, and are willing to work for minimum wages or even for free to get their foot in the door at a major game company. If you have the ability, willpower, education, and financial resources to compete head-to-head with these factors, you have a chance.
If this level of fierce competition doesn’t suite your tastes, you can always go the independent route of starting your own audio studio. Once you get a few music libraries created, try to sell them to companies as art packs that add to the game development tools they already sell. There’s also the flash and indie game development community where a person can make a name for themselves doing work for free on games that may become popular.
No matter what route you choose, once you get your name on any one completed game or any one published product, you instantly become worlds ahead of 99% of the people that “Think” they want to do this for a hobby or a living.
Gamers often believe in their heads that people that make games strictly do it for the love of games and not the money. Nothing could be further from the truth. The game industry worldwide is a $25 Billion dollar industry a year. In many cases, any company can make one bad game and go under just months later. Developers make games in hope that they can get the funding and / or at least a return on their investment to at least be able to draw a check while making the next game.
Independent developers may start off making a project for the love of the game, but at some point the reality of real life expenses and your future always forces a person to make a serious decision. If you sink year after year of your life and money into music and / or games and can’t make money, what do you do? Every person will come up with the answer that’s right for them, but no answer is every truly right or wrong.
If you’re really serious about wanting to get into game audio, you have to be willing to commit serious time, money, and energy at the cost of sacrificing other parts of your life if want to get good. Try hard. Try often, and don’t give up. If you start down this road with instruments, computers, or software that’s too hard to understand, you need to read, get training, or research and pick different tools that make it easier for you to understand.
No matter what you do to ultimately create the music you’re going to make, remember this one thing. Nobody gives a damn about how much money you have or how long or quickly it took you to make a quality product. There is no right or wrong gear, technique, skill sets, or canned education that can guarantee success.
If you can show anything you make to a client, and that client pays you for your work…. YOU are right. The CLIENT is happy, and everyone else is wrong about whether or not your music is or will ever be “Good Enough” at that exact moment.
Thank you for reading my article on video game audio. I hope some of this information helps you get to where you want to be with music for video games.