Dren McDonald interview

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

I work as a game audio designer, composing music and creating sound design for video games…from console to mobile.

What is your niche or speciality, that makes you stand out from rest of the audio professionals?

I enjoy the ‘big picture’ view of any game project that I’m fortunate enough to work on. So rather than create only sound design, or only music, I like to see how those pieces will fit together and work to create a meaningful experience for the player. I love learning about game design, and what the designers are thinking about their game and the emotions they are trying to create in the player’s experience so that I can try to help support that with the audio side.

I’m also a big fan of recording instruments and sounds whenever possible, and to that end I’ve built a lot of my own instruments to see what kind of new sounds I can coax out of them. If you remember the film Toy Story and the evil neighbor boy, Sid, who liked to chop up the toys and re-assemble them into new ‘scary’ toys…well that’s pretty similar to what I do with instruments.

I also enjoy playing around with different types of mics, and mic placement to get some different sounds whenever I have the time to do so. There are a lot of composers using many of the same software tools, and as you say, how do you stand out when everyone is using the same tools? These methods of creating sounds are fairly natural to me, as I’ve always been a big fan of experimental music like Parch, Cage, Einsturzende Neubauten, or The Residents.

Can you give us a brief summary of the equipment you use regularly?

Still using a Mac Pro 8core, loving the new Logic X…my studio is filled with lots of stringed instruments, so I’ll often pull a guitar or uke off of the wall to plunk away at ideas. The outboard gear I probably use the most is the Universal Audio LA-610 MK2, but I have a couple of other pre’s and compressors that I mess around with. I don’t often record more than one or two instruments at a time, so I don’t need a lot of I/O.

Of course I’m always keeping up on a lot of the sample libraries depending on the types of projects I’m working on.

What are your go-to plug-ins and software? (virtual instruments, audio processing etc.)

I mentioned Logic, so I use that every day. I also switched over to Twisted Wave for a stereo audio editor. Currently I’m doing a lot of work in FMOD Studio and I’m starting to get the hang of that. For plug-ins, I rely on the UA plug-ins a lot, like the SSL buss comp, 140 and 250 reverbs, I really love the U-He plugs for sound design stuff, Sound Toys as well. PSP Audio do a great job on their EQs and comps, and I’ve been using a lot of MCDSP stuff lately as well. There’s something super satisfying about recording an instrument with the right mic, with the right preamp, and then using a plug-in compressor that makes the whole track sing.

For sample libraries I’ve been using mostly Kontakt libraries, such as Sound Iron, Cinesamples, Impact Soundworks, and 8Dio. Embertone is a new one I really like as well. Plus Reaktor and the great stuff that’s available from Twisted Tools and other folks making Reaktor ensembles!

When do you find you are most creative?

I’ve worked this out. On normal days, between 10 am and 1 pm. And oddly enough, between 10 pm and 1 am. Those are the times I can really come up with some ideas, and if I can stay focused after that, I can give them the other 95% of work they’ll need to stand on their own.

What is your usual process for creating audio content for games, films etc.?

Look at the game build (hopefully) and based on the conversations with the designers/producers (and the art style) I come up with some ideas of how it should sound. For larger projects I might prototype some of this with existing music or sounds to see how it feels, and if it’s something with a tight turnaround (most mobile games) I’ll just dive in.

Are there any particular secrets to your creativity?

No secrets, but knowing how my brain works (or doesn’t) I have to keep the wheels greased up in the right side of my brain or it starts getting rusty. One way to do this is to always have some personal music projects to work on when you aren’t working on client work. This helps keep your soul from feeling like it belongs to someone else as well. Just switching over from client music to your own, for a few minutes a day, can really help.

It might sound weird, but meditation really helps. A lot of ideas are swimming around in our sub-conscious, and staying in touch with that part of ourselves on a regular basis keeps us creatively healthy.

Do you have any audio creation techniques that resulted in something interesting?

Field recording is always great for that, especially using contact mics. I haven’t done it yet, but I have this idea for attaching contact mics to various wood beams in my basement, and I want to hang weights from piano wire to see what kind of sounds my house will make.

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

Always have an agreement. I haven’t been burned, but having a general agreement at the most basic level, even if it doesn’t seem to be officially legal, always helps spell out the expectations before you begin a project. You’ll find you always refer back to the agreement and it will help save relationships.

Any tips, hints or motivational speeches for the readers?

Everyone says this, but put energy into what makes you happy. That will usually pay off in the end. I’m not saying it’ll pay off like the lottery, but if you find areas of specialization that you really like to dig into, then go there and see where that path takes you. Your enthusiasm will become obvious to everyone around you and everyone wants to work with someone who is excited and enthusiastic.