Benedict Nichols interview

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Color Guardians

Brief list of credits

Color Guardians (PS4/Vita/Steam) , Doom Warrior (PC, Mac), Battle Camp (Apple Multiplayer Game of the Year 2013), Fruit Scoot, Faraway, I Am A Brave Knight.

Tell us a little about yourself and what you do for a living?

Hi, my name is Benedict Nichols, based in the UK, and I work as a composer (and sound designer when necessary) for both games and films. I’ve been working as a composer for nearly 10 years now, writing for all sorts of media mediums, but have focused mainly on games in the last 4 or so. The sound design part is an element of my work that has really developed over the last few years. While composing is always in some way about sculpting sound, many developers I’ve worked for have needed an ‘all-in-one’ audio man to do everything, so creating sfx and designing a sonicscape for a game has become a key skill too.

Color Guardians looks like a fun game. Could you tell us more about the game? How did you get involved in this project and what was your role?

It’s a great game! But I may be biased… It looks so cute and welcoming but underneath is a fantastically challenging game that is really demanding. It’s a combination of colour swapping, lane switching and survival as you run at high-speed re-colouring the world around you. It takes instinct and memory…and sometimes a lot of patience!

I got involved via the director Felipe Cartin, for whom I’d provided a new score for I Am A Brave Knight (iOS). He liked what I did, and the variety of styles in which I can work and so brought me on to the team. I’ve never actually met any of the team, who are based in Costa Rica, but I was responsible for providing every single audio asset and overseeing its implementation. They are a great developer team to work with. I would send them batches of assets, instructions on how I’d want it implemented, then receive a build and check it for bugs and have discussions via Skype. I genuinely felt a part of the team as I contributed to the game’s direction in more than just an ‘audio way’. And a huge shout out to Carlos Gamboa who was the key coder I worked with. He had a lot of patience as I requested subtle changes and improvements!

What was the most difficult part of making sound for Color Guardians?

Not sure really. None of it was particularly difficult, because it was enjoyable, but it had unique challenges. It’s an extremely colourful and vibrant game, with loads going on, and so from a composer standpoint I wanted to match this. I wanted the music to have as much fun in it as the visuals did. Plus I get bored listening to music that does the same thing for more than 8 bars! I initially took the fantastic soundtracks from the Rayman and Mario Kart series as my guidance, but then took it in my own natural direction, as I think any composer should do. And all at 180bpm! After some deliberation it was decided that was the speed the player would run at, and if the music was off that pace it felt uncomfortable, so I had to write in different styles all at 180bpm. World 2 was probably the most fun for this, with “The Vineyards” being one of my favourite tracks, and then “Storm” following it with its constantly changing time signatures! (Because why not eh?) The music contains checkpoints throughout, so while the tracks loop, it’s not always looping or starting from the same place, which helps break up the repetition as you die over and over.

Of course having all this vibrant music in different styles through the levels meant that the sfx had to be carefully balanced against it all. And that was a challenge. At one point we had just too many sfx in there. I was reminded though of the “less is more” rule, and we pulled stuff out. In the more frantic levels its crucial that the sound tells you what you’ve done. Often you’re watching the right-side of the screen for upcoming obstacles, so the audio cues of your character’s actions on the left are the clearest indicator of your immediate success and failures.

You mentioned that you oversee audio integration remotely. Tell us more about this process and what does it entail?

I was unable to have access to the game’s code, so everything was produced from playing builds and recording game footage. To be honest, this was absolutely fine by me as I didn’t want to get bogged down in coding or audio middleware. It’s not my first love when it comes to game development! I wanted to be able to focus on the more creative aspect of the work. Once an audio batch was sent over to the team, I could then start working on next audio ideas and cues, then review builds, report bugs, make suggestions, and present the next batch. Carlos Gamboa had his hands full at times, but this revolving iterative process worked for the most part. I communicated almost daily with them via Skype, so as soon as I had anything I was pleased with, music or sound design-wise, I could share it with a core team for feedback and any necessary improvement. Fortunately for me, the team seemed to really like where I was taking the audio early on, so I was given a lot of freedom to be creative. Makes a huge difference. Makes the job fun :)

Are there any audio programs or plugins you are currently favoring?

Where to start?! I run a maxed out 2013 Mac Pro with Logic X, using VEP to host all the EastWest PLAY libraries on a 2010 Mac Pro. Kontakt is my main sample player, with loads of content from 8dio, Soundiron, SampleLogic and many others. Previous experience has taught me to be ready to write in any style quickly, and so I need the tools to do that. It’s an ever-growing collection.

Mixing-wise I’m currently loving Fabfilter’s products. I used to always use Ozone 5 for that last bit of polish, but there’s something about Fabfilter’s sound that I can’t quite identify but prefer….for now….

Oh and RX4. Very useful for final checking and tweaking of assets.

What was your role in Doom Warrior?

I was composer and provider of some additional sfx for Doom Warrior. I designed myself a big task on that, so its over 1.2 hours or epic orchestral and choral music, all layered and cross-fading based on how well your battles were going. It was intense music, so to write over 20 4-layer tracks was a lot. It’s not the kind of music where the first layer is just a straightforward ambience. You are in battle as soon as the level cutscene ends, so the music has to go straight into it as well. It’s stacked orchestral writing so when I was writing the first layer I had to keep in mind what would happen in 3 layers time, what different instruments would/could be doing, and how the music would musically evolve to that…as the crossfades could happen at anytime and skip layers. It was a challenge, but I really enjoyed it. Again, I was working with a great developer who just let me get on with it (Creaky Corpse). And while it took a little longer than I expected, it was definitely worth it. I wrote 7 main themes, before picking one, as well as scoring all the cutscenes and editing and scoring the trailers!

Your portfolio indicates that you work mostly in gaming industry (game audio) but there are also exceptions where you have worked on indie movies. Could you tell us more about the project Faraway and how was it different for you to score a film?

I was contacted through Soundcloud by the director of Faraway, Randal Kamradt. It was a total surprise as it’s not the usual way I’m offered a job! I saw some of the stills from the shoot in the Philippines and was immediately in. I thought “I want to write something beautiful for that” and so said yes. The audio budget wasn’t great so we agreed I’d work on it when I could. He sent me a copy of the film and I scored it, starting at the start and straight through to the end!

One of the refreshing things about writing for film is there is less concern about interactivity. You want to engage the viewer, but its not the same as with a game. You are telling a story with the audio and visuals, and while its just like a game in that you want to draw the viewer/player in, you don’t have to worry about the viewer interrupting your story’s flow, which is incredibly liberating….until your musical ideas get cut short by a cue that you have to hit! It’s nice not to always have interactive issues in the back of your mind when you’re reaching for new ideas.

I completed a Masters in scoring for film, and from experience there knew that keeping my theme short was key. I settled on an incredibly simple motif, which I was able to explore and develop through the movie. So like the characters on screen, the audio went on a journey too, with the motifs and writing style morphing as the nature of the film does. If hadn’t had that particular motif though, perhaps I would have struggled!

What would you consider to be a good working relationship with the director or game developer?

Well, all of the developers I’ve worked with have been remote. As much as I’d like to, I’ve never had the chance to meet most of them! But being available for communication is key. I’m on Skype nearly 24/7, and while that doesn’t mean that I can always do something for them immediately, I think it means a lot to the developer to know that their ‘audio man’ is on-board like any other member of the team. I once visited a developer and was introduced round the office person by person. They each said “Hi” then just turned back to their workstations. I realised they were more chatty on Skype than in real life! I thought it was such a shame as for me gaming is about enjoying an experience and sharing it with others (I think I got that from growing up playing games with my 4 brothers). I think if the developers themselves have no sense of community, the game suffers. Which is one reason why I often prefer to work with indie developers. They seem more keenly aware of the community’s support for their survival.

Sometimes I don’t know what else is going on inside the team dynamic or what pressures they are all under. All I can do is aim to be reliable from my end. And it’s great when a developer is too. Reliability, communication and honesty. If I don’t like an aspect of a game we are working on, I say so. Because at the end of the day, I’m a gamer too. In once sense I’m outside of the team, I haven’t had my head stuck in the sand of project development from day one, so can bring a fresh mind/opinion/pair of eyes that can contribute positively to the game’s success.

Any specific “lessons learned” on a project that you could share?

1) The elephant in the room is often money. It has to be clearly and honestly discussed at the start so that neither party is under any delusion as to what is to be expected. And if the scope of the project changes, it needs to be addressed. A few years ago I worked on a project where the client’s expectations grew and grew, but the budget didn’t…all of a sudden I was having to consider taking on other work at the same time, which meant I couldn’t enjoy just working on one project, and giving it all my creative attention. Commitment to a project is so important for job satisfaction.

2) On the flip side, I’ve worked with developers who are understanding of our need as audio guys to earn a living, and value our creativity and input, and have kindly rewarded that. So I think the lesson is also to try to accurately assess what kind of a developer you are negotiating work with, and if it seems shady and unrewarding in any way, it probably is. …It’s a skill that I’m still developing, but it is well worth it.

3) Be proud of your work when you’ve put the effort in, but don’t get too attached. You might love that 32-bar development of a theme, but if it takes the music off in the wrong direction it’s no good. Don’t be afraid to embrace criticism as in the end it leads to a better project, but also defend your creative decisions if you have good reasons for them. Audio isn’t 50% of a game. It’s just part of a final product and it’s important to have pride in that first, and then the audio.
4) Back up your work, and if you can afford it, have a hardware backup too! I had a mac meltdown half-way through the development of Color Guardians, and 5 days before a demo deadline for a big gaming conference. That was stressful…

Any hints, tips or motivational speeches for the readers?

The hardest part is getting that first foot in the door. Versatility is crucial, and while you need to have the ability to sound like someone else (because nearly all developers look for reference material and will at some point say “make it sound like that”) you also need to develop your own sound and style for when your moment comes! And that’s when it gets really fun! With modern tech there are few limits to what you can create. Learn your tech, learn music theory (very helpful for versatility) and have passion for what you do. If you want to one day earn a living from composing or sound design, make sure you are paid, even if it’s only a little. When you respect your position in the industry, others will too.