Frank D’Angelo interview

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Tell us a little about yourself and what you do for a living?
My name is Frank D’Angelo, and I am currently a Sound Designer at Zynga. I’m working on their upcoming game, Solstice Arena. As the only sound designer on the project, It’s a lot of work, but it’s also very rewarding and lots of fun. I’m having a great time with it, and the team is great to work with. Many talented and awesome people. As a Sound Designer for games, I am responsible for creating all the sound effects you hear in the game. While we really don’t compose music, I will work closely with outsourced composers or music licensers to pick music tracks that work well for the game. I also work with and direct voice actors in recording sessions, and edit and process the dialogue tracks later. Lastly, I am responsible for implementing all of this audio into the game, mixing volumes, testing playback, and delivering a final and polished product. There is a lot more than meets the eye that goes with being a Sound Designer.

I have an education in Audio Engineering, but decided to pursue the game audio industry because frankly, that was all I wanted to do since I was a little kid. I started playing games when I was 5 years old and still do, of course. The audio and music of games always captured my heart, and I spent a majority of my teen years writing video game sheet music, performing video game music covers on piano, moderating different video game sites, and listening to game soundtracks pretty much all the time. Game audio and music has been a a very big and positive part of my life. I want to be able to give people a reason to fall in love with audio, just like I did.

What is your niche or speciality, that makes you stand out from rest of the audio professionals?
Having a special niche or secondary skill set in today’s world is becoming increasingly more and more important. You’re starting to see Sound Designers only get hired at game studios if they know some other type of skill as well, the most common being programming skills. What I personally bring to the table though is an amazing level of passion, dedication, and enthusiasm, as well as my broad range of audio engineering knowledge across many disciplines of professional audio. (Thank you school!) I also pride myself in being a very business oriented designer, having great communication and organizational skills. I also have quite a bit of administrative and leadership work experience prior to working in audio, so I always make sure to utilize my full skill set on the job.

Can you give us a brief summary of the equipment you use regularly?
The majority of my work takes place on a well equipped computer. PC or MAC, it can be either and often depends on where I am working. I then have a MIDI keyboard, audio interface, some microphones and recorders, studio monitors and sub, and finally, a bunch of audio software and plugins where all the magic happens. I also own a Zoom H4N portable recorder for the field recording trips. It’s small and inexpensive, and it gets the job done!

I have currently been using Reaper as my DAW, and really love this program. It’s so simple on the outside, but offers even the most complex functionality for those that want it. Besides Reaper though, some other tools in my bag are Pro Tools, Sound Forge, Adobe Audition, Logic Pro, Native Instruments Plugins, Camel Audio Plugins, and of course a bunch of sound effect libraries to work from when field recording is not a feasible option.

What are your go-to plug-ins and software? (virtual instruments, audio processing etc.)
Heh, I guess I just answered this in the last question! But once again, Reaper as my DAW and Logic Pro for composing are my main guns. I like Audition for two track editing, and the Native Instruments, Camel Audio, and Waves plugins are really cool for my sound design work. I also love using software synths for sound design, and have created some really awesome content using a variety of the myriad of software synths in the market today.

When do you find you are most creative?
I tend to be most creative at night, but most productive in the early morning (6-11AM). There is a difference between creativity and productivity! I find that I often get really awesome ideas or inspiration at night, so I always make sure to jot my ideas down so I can start putting them together the next morning. There’s just something about the early morning and a cup of coffee that makes me feel like I could accomplish anything.

What is your usual process for creating audio content for games, films etc.?
I like to do quite a bit of pre-production for any sound I’m going to be working on before I even start pulling sounds from my SFX library or doing work in my DAW. I spend some time writing down ideas, brainstorming, and researching how I want this sound to come out. With thousands upon thousands of sound files, the ability to field record, and the infinite processing power of audio software, you can waste a lot of time if you are just swinging in the dark experimenting with different things. (We are on a deadline to ship a game after all!) I really like setting a clear direction for what I want to design. Once I get that all done, I find actually making the sound to be tremendously easier than if I had just started from scratch. I either pull appropriate sounds from my SFX libraries, or go field record content that I feel fits what I am looking to create. Some audio plugin magic and trickery later, I have a finished sound that I’m usually extremely happy with.

Are there any particular secrets to your creativity?
I draw a lot of inspiration from playing different video games. I was surprised that when I first started working in the game industry, that quite a lot of my coworkers were not really keeping up with playing games. Not that they didn’t like them, but life in general had swayed them away from playing. I agree that games are a time sink that could be tough to fit into a busy schedule, but I still try to stay pretty up to date by always playing a couple games (either new or old) at a time. I think innovation is just building on inspiration, and when I hear something I like in a game, I think about how they might have done that, and how I could do it better. By combining my own creative energy with my inspiration from the multitude of games I’ve played in my life, I’ve created lots of sounds that I’m very happy with.

Do you have any audio creation techniques that resulted in something interesting?
Sound design is incredibly exciting because you never know what kind of source that next awesome sound you make will come from. However, this very fact can also make Sound Design very frustrating at times. For example, if I am told to I need to make the sound for a magic ability that visually is just a purple glow appearing around a character and acts as a damage reduction buff, it can be challenging where exactly you start! Your perfect sound for that ability can literally come from anything. Some examples of unexpected gems that I’ve created just go on to prove this. I’ve created ice magic sounds from recording myself swishing water around in a bath tub and applying generous amounts of flange and phasing to them. I’ve made user interface SFX from almost every household item in my house, including staplers, pens, tearing paper, silverware, matchsticks, scissors, paperclips, and more. I’ve created awesome laser and plasma sounds from heavily processed metal impacts. I’ve created mechanical movement SFX by using a can opener to open a can. I made teleport sounds with cameras and heavy jacket whooshes. The list goes on and on. I try to experiment as much as I can (time permitting), as I’m constantly surprised where that perfect sound can come from.

Any specific “lessons learned” on a project that you could share?
I think it’s really important to stay on top of managing your workload. Not only are audio departments already usually under-resourced for extremely large amounts of work, but the ever changing minds of artists and designers can throw us into the pits of hell once we have to go back and change once “final” sounds. For example, if an artist changes the projectiles of a magic weapon from fire-y looking orange orbs to green wispy plasma looking orbs. Yea, I’ll probably need to change my sound. If a designer decided that an object that once hovered stationary in mid air now is going to swing back and forth, well yea, my ambient sound probably needs to change. If an animator makes timing changes to his fighting animations to make it more life-like or realistic, yep, you guessed it, I gotta redo my sound. Stuff like this happens a lot, with other disciplines in the game studio totally forgetting about audio. We already come last in the design process, so when artists and designers keep making changes to stuff that was supposed to be finished, it can easily put us in over our heads with too much work to do. This is when it’s extremely important to make your voice heard and remind other disciplines how that if they change something this late in development, we might not have enough time to make something awesome there, and ultimately the audio will suffer, resulting in the entire game experience suffering.

All and all, be an advocate for excellent audio at your workplace, and keep an open communication with all other disciplines in the studio to ensure that there won’t be too many surprises. You’ll never be able to get rid of having to change or rework your sounds at all, but you can at least try to keep these demands from getting unreasonable. It’s up to you to address the matter to the appropriate people and get it resolved.

One last lesson I’ll share that I wish I learned earlier, and that I also constantly have to remind myself, is that “Less is More!” When working on a sound, it’s really easy to start pulling source content in by the dozens, or experimenting with every plugin you own. You’re trying to layer sound upon sound, processing upon processing, and hoping that the most glorious thing is eventually going to pop out. Instead, all you get is a muddy and busy sound that isn’t very good, and now your session is filled with tons of files you really don’t need. You start cleaning up the sounds and simplifying things, and before you know it you’re back to the 2-3 original source files you initially started with and they sound great! So yep, less is often more. Simplicity is a wonderful thing, and trying to go too deep with your design can often lead to frustration and wasted time. If you make something that sounds awesome by simply processing one audio file you recorded, then so be it–it sounded awesome, remember? :)

Any tips, hints or motivational speeches for the readers?
Breaking into the game audio industry (and well, just about any audio job honestly) is extremely tough. There’s very limited positions out there, and lots of very talented people applying for them. It’s definitely been stressful for me sometimes with finding work after a contract ends, and I even have gone through terrible gaps of unemployment where I could not seem to find anything. I’m not trying to deter anyone from following their dreams of working with audio, but I think it’s important that people know what they are getting themselves into. You may luck out and be one of the very few people that falls into a job right away, but the majority of us have to pay our dues, and by that I mean, internships, contract and temporary jobs, freelancing, etc. The best advice I can give to people trying to pave a career in game audio and sound design is to be passionate and persistent, and never give up. No matter how much you get knocked down, you just have to get up and try even harder.

Networking is also extremely important, and you should do it as much as possible. Participate at audio and gaming forums/communities. Set time and money aside to attend the audio and gaming conventions. Follow game Sound Designers on Twitter and utilize other social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn. Knowing people already working in the game industry goes a very long way, and most Associate and mid level jobs are often just filled by word of mouth, definitely reinforcing the fact you need to know as many people as possible in this industry. All and all, don’t expect to waltz right into an audio job. Do everything you can to continue getting yourself closer to your goal, whatever it may be. Always be on the lookout for opportunities that can get you a bit more experience or good contacts, and don’t be afraid to go out and make your own opportunities for yourself as well! If work isn’t available now, go start your own work by starting your own project, or begin working as a freelancer picking up small jobs. It’s all going to make you better and get you closer to your goals. So be strong, love what you do, and never give up. If you can do that, good things will come to you.