Daan Hendriks interview

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Tell us a little about yourself and what you do for a living?
I’m a 31 years old Dutch guy living and working in London, UK. I’m currently employed as lead audio designer at Mind Candy, which is an entertainment company for children aged 7-12. The core of the products we produce is games for browser and mobile platforms (iOS, Android, Nintendo DS), but we’ve been branching out into other entertainment fields as well – web tv, live events, toys&licensing, music albums/videos, magazines and most interestingly for me personally now also animation films.

Basically my job is to look after anything audio related for our games and occasionally our other products. Besides I am responsible for the sound design of the first animation movie that we are currently producing. In terms of hands-on daytime tasks it varies between creating/recording sound effects, voices and sometimes short pieces of music, and implementing all of these into the game(s). I also spend plenty of time liaising with programmers/tech leads about audio tech, tools and pipelines. And then a very important part of my role is to make sure that the audio designers in my team are supported in any way they need, essentially trying to ensure they can do their job as well as possible. Apart from the in-house audio designers there’s also a handful of external contractors that I regularly work with, these are mostly composers. Lastly, I look after budgeting of and hiring for the audio department, and deal with occasional things such as speccing new studio builds, new equipment, software, libraries, and so on.

In my spare time I’m usually pretty active with sound recording, I love going out into nature to record wildlife, ambiences, and so forth. This is mostly for pleasure but also work related as most of my recordings eventually find their way into the library that we use at work. As much as I love my job (and I do truly love it), I think my favourite way of interacting with sound is by doing nature & wildlife recording. This type of recording is challenging and requires at lot of patience, which is exactly the thing I love about it – it forces you to slow down, be still, and listen. It’s also a great way of just getting out there and discovering new places.

Before joining Mind Candy in 2011, I was a freelance sound designer for about 4 years, working on a large assortment of games, including some AAA console titles and a plethora of mobile games. Even longer before that I set up a small record label and was mostly preoccupied with producing and releasing electronic & sample-based music.

What is your niche or speciality, that makes you stand out from rest of the audio professionals?
I’m not entirely sure if I have a niche or speciality – this probably means I don’t and am perhaps still finding it. In some ways maybe someone else would describe me as a jack-of-all-trades, which is not so rare in game audio anyway, as us game audio folk often wear a lot of hats. But I personally don’t see myself as a jack-of-all-trades, because there’s certain key skills that I don’t possess: I can’t program a single line of code (I can edit scripts, but I am not a programmer by any stretch), and even though I write and make music, I am certainly not a composer. Before my current job I was a freelancer, and as a freelancer you need to be able to deal with anything that is thrown your way. In my current role, my tasks & responsibilities are very varied so I’m not consciously specialising in a particular, singular thing. I hope though that one day I can become an outstanding field recordist – and obviously in terms of sound design as well, there’s so very much more to learn that I can’t even begin to describe where I might end up.

Can you give us a brief summary of the equipment you use regularly?
I can, but I would also say that the equipment question is almost irrelevant in my view. There’s a tool for every job, and certainly there’s a correlation between money spent on a tool and quality of the output (at least when it comes to things like microphones, pre-amps, speakers), in the end of the day these are just tools and it’s how you use them that is more important.

My setup for sound design work is pretty straightforward, it’s just a Macbook Pro with a good set of monitors (Focals CMS 50s), an Mbox Pro soundcard and an M-Audio 64-keys MIDI keyboard. The room I work in is treated with basstraps, which is equally as, if not more important than having good monitor speakers. No outboard gear like mixers and the like, though I’ve started using my iPad now for some fader work.

When it comes to field & sfx recording I’m more of a gear head, especially in terms of microphones. For ambient recording I usually use my Sennheiser MKH8040 + MKH30 mics in MS configuration. MS is not the best solution for ambient sound though – I do get a nice and wide stereo image, but it’s not as natural sounding as recording with 2 omnis or even cardioids in ORTF or SASS configurations. I’m still saving up the money for the necessary mounts and windshields to use my mics in those kinds of configurations (I have another MKH8040 ready for this, and in the future this will allow me to record in Double MS surround as well).

I also really like my pair of DPA4060s, which are super tiny and very sensitive, so ideal for getting up and close to quiet sources, and they have a great sound. I own a Rode NTG-3 shotgun, which is really quite good – I don’t use it that often, but a shotgun has its use every now and then. Then there’s a couple of hydrophones by Jez Riley French, which are pretty good for the occasional submerged recording session – I picked up some interesting water insect sounds with these, for instance. I recently ordered a Trance Audio Stereo Inducer which I am eagerly awaiting, this is a very high quality contact mic system with 2 pickups and a matching preamp

To record all this I use a Tascam DR-680, which has 6 phantom powered inputs. Though the machine is a bit plasticky and operation can be a little cumbersome, it sounds really good and the preamps are almost as quiet as a Sound Devices 7-series recorder, for a fraction of the price. I also make extensive use of my Sony D50 handheld recorder, its internal mics are of relatively outstanding quality.

Woops, you asked for a brief summary, and instead I wrote a novel.

What are your go-to plug-ins and software? (virtual instruments, audio processing etc.)
Let’s keep this one brief then… I use Ableton Live for pretty much all sound design work, it’s just so fast and flexible. I do occasionally use Pro Tools, and for the film that we’re producing I will be using Pro Tools exclusively. Plugin favourites are the Sound Toys set, and I love a lot of the Ableton built in plugins. 2c Aether & Altiverb are my go-to reverb plugins. In terms of (virtual) synths, NI Massive and FM8 are all-time favourites.

When do you find you are most creative?
It’s too unpredictable, I have no formula for being creative! Very often, it’s just a matter of ‘being there’. Being in a good mood and having had a good night’s sleep helps though, but is no guarantee of creative bliss. Generally, just liking the project is enough for creativity to come. There have been projects in the past that were a bit of a drag, and I did not create my best work on those.

What is your usual process for creating audio content for games, films etc.?
I stare at the big pile of work in front of me, freak out and run away. Upon my return, it really depends on the sort of content that I need to create. Of course I have a large library of pre-recorded sounds that I shift through in order to select elements that I will combine into something I want. Synths come often into play, especially for UI and magical sort of sounds, but not exclusively. I record bespoke sounds whenever I can, and use these as elements or sometimes as is. But I can’t really answer this question in a specific way, as every sound creation task has its own particular approach. If I’m truly uninspired and having a bad day, I just mess around for a while until something sticks.

Are there any particular secrets to your creativity?
No secrets I’m afraid, just mostly hard work, trial and error, and some fallback processes that often generate results – more on that in a bit. Key to doing sound design is of course to not take things too literally. If you need a cannonball sound, are you going to search in your library for ‘cannonball’? No!! You will just end up with a generic cannonball effect that was designed by someone else, and has likely been used by lots of other people. In the beginning of my career I have sinned as well: I have used library sounds that I thought were ace, only to later start recognising these sounds on multiple tv shows, games, films, etc – everywhere! Don’t get me wrong, using library sounds as elements is fine and totally necessary to be able to do our jobs, but it’s how you use them that is important.

Even though I usually work fairly methodical and try to think of the sound I want to create in an abstract way, sometimes I prefer to just let randomness take over. This can involve clicking like a madman through my library in search of elements that just sound good or have a particular characteristic that I want to build upon and manipulate, while having no direct relation to the actual thing I am trying to make. Truly the most important tools in your arsenal are your ears and your ability to listen, and so it is this listening that I try to really improve on and make the most of.

One common thing that happens to a lot of sound designers, myself included, is that you start building a sound and keep building, building… Usually the most important and creatively most fruitful thing to do after all this building, in my experience at least, is to start tearing things down. Take out those elements, break it down, mute things, clean it up. In most cases all you need is just a few elements that are elegantly placed in relation to each other.

What can really aid this process is turning off your computer monitor – simply stop staring at that animation, that sequence, or even your layout of waveforms and tracks and automation data. Just turn off your screen and use only your ears, this often opens up exactly the problem you were struggling with just moments before, and clarifies what your next steps should be.

Do you have any audio creation techniques that resulted in something interesting?
The basic stuff still is what is most useful to me most of the time. Reversing, pitch shifting, doubling – I do this all the time and it’s often more than sufficient. When it comes to recording, getting super close to what you are recording can be amazing. Tiny omni mics (lapels) are great for recording mechanical things, getting inside machines etc – I like to open up electric devices to fish for sounds with my DPA 4060s for instance. Lapel mics are useful for lots of stuff other than just electric devices though, for instance they can be great for recording animal sounds if you can prepare things properly (getting close to your subject without disturbing it).

Another pretty well known recording technique for electric devices is using telephone pickup coils, these pick up electromagnetic waves and transform them into sound waves – they’re super cheap and always result in surprises, lots of fun, perfect for sci-fi stuff. Of course, using good contact microphones can be a great source for sounds as well, just don’t make any assumptions on beforehand because the results you will get are often not what you expect.

If you use Ableton, then messing with the various warping (timestretching) algorithms in conjunction with the pitch can result in unexpected and useful results. For instance, using the Beats algorithm on material with very little transients can give unexpected transient characteristics to your sound – not always useful, but sometimes it can open up your ears to new avenues to take your sound to.

Any specific “lessons learned” on a project that you could share?
Well this isn’t very specific, and not a unique thing to say either but still worth mentioning – when it comes to game audio, the content creation side of things is really just a percentage of the work… let’s call it 50% for convenience sake. The other ‘half’ is implementing your sounds, and unless you are both a sound designer and a programmer (if you are, you are going to be in high demand), you are going to need the help of the programmers to let you do this. This means a few things: first of all, you need to keep the coders on your side, because often there won’t be a dedicated audio coder on the team, meaning that you are going to take up time of programmers who are expected to work on different parts of the game. Yes – audio still often comes as a bit of an afterthought, so it is your responsibility as the audio guy/girl to continuously sell the importance of sound to the game you and the team are making, and that resources should be spent on getting this right, rather than just having some sounds thrown over the wall and hoping for the best.

This can be an uphill battle, especially if you are freelancing, but also if you are in-house at a company that doesn’t have the structure and pipelines in place yet for audio implementation. However it is also one of the most interesting and unique aspects of game audio. Besides, you get to work with some of the most clever and creative people you will ever meet – at least that is my experience of the programmers that I work and have worked with.

I have had many projects in the past as a freelancer where I unfortunately was only in touch with the producer, no access to the coding team, resulting in a game that certainly did not sound as good as I intended – no matter how great my assets maybe were, not being able to communicate on a daily/hourly basis with the coders was my one and only frustration of being a freelancer working from home.

Going in-house is not per se a magical solution to this problem. In my current job, there are aspects of the biggest game we have online that are still not up to par from a sound point of view. This is not because of an unwilling or unable coding team, far from it and quite the opposite, but it has to do with inheriting an ‘audio debt’ in a product that has been online for a few years but never had a dedicated audio person looking after it before I joined the company. This means that progress, from an audio point of view, on aspects of the game that have been created and gone live years ago is a difficult and time & resource consuming process.

Any tips, hints or motivational speeches for the readers?
Sure thing, the usual stuff: don’t give up. This is a buyers market unfortunately: there are way, way more aspiring or even experienced but unfortunate (made redundant due to company closures) audio designers out there than there are jobs available. On the same token though, the game industry is growing very fast and in all sorts of different directions. The rise of the mobile/tablet market has been very disruptive, and for every AAA console games developer closing down, there’s 5 micro studios rising from the ashes, often working on innovative, creatively interesting games for these new mobile platforms.

In short, there are many opportunities out there, just don’t only rely on the jobs you see advertised – these are few and far between and competition is high for them. Find out where your local developers hang out, go and make friends with them – people value skills but they value equally working with someone they know, like and trust.

I’d also like to advice to not focus too much on ‘how’ to do things. Try not to worry about how you make this sound, how you make that sound, or which software you should use… The how is easy, it will come when you start and continue doing things – the why is a more interesting question to ask and will often lead to deeper insight in what you are trying to do. Make sure you listen to plenty of games and films; sure, play them and watch them, but make sure you truly listen to them as you do so – you will learn heaps more by doing that properly than by spending £10k on some Pro Tools engineering course.