Samuel Justice interview

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Brief list of credits

Battlefield 4, SOMA, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, Dear Esther

Tell us a little about yourself and how did you get into sound design for games?

I grew up in a small town in England called Worthing. My generation was one of the first where games were socially accepted as being valid forms of entertainment, the stigma was still floating around – but it wasn’t as prevalent as it was back in the early 80’s. My mother played piano and my father the bass guitar and both enjoyed listening to a lot of music, so subconsciously I was always surrounded by that as well.

It was when I started to fiddle with my parents computers at an early age that I began to love games and computing – although I did get the odd telling off now and then when I loaded the machine with junk software. Growing up the games industry always appealed to me, more so than the games. I would sit and make Half Life mods and levels whilst watching whatever documentaries I could about game makers and this became my own little escape. During my teens I also took up the bass guitar and played with some friends in a few bands. When I had finished high school, like many others, I had absolutely no clue what I wanted to do so I enrolled in a music technology course nearby where I lived (Northbrook College). I began to learn the basics of DAWs, recording and how to use equipment like DAT machines. In the evening I would still plug away at mods for various games engines. Then about half way through the course I had an epiphany – my mods needed sound, and I was in the perfect position to provide audio for them. So this is where I really began to delve into sound design and the creation of audio. I was never very good at composition or writing music – but having a basic understanding of it helped greatly and after making a few sounds, I got absolutely hooked.

Thanks to this I managed to make my way onto the teams of some of the higher profile mods – of which some members were developers in the industry. I got a real insight into development processes, trials, tribulations and the sheer pain it can cause to actually make and release a game. I kept in touch with these folk and did some contract work for a few years after leaving college. But after that had dried up I needed to seek out other income – to not only continue doing audio, but also to live in general. It was at this point that I joined the Police for around 3 years, it was an incredible life building experience and something I do not regret, but my heart was never quite in the job as I was always thinking back to making audio for games, and doing so whenever I could. During the end of my time in the Police, a friend I had worked with on a mod got in touch and asked if I would like to help out on a small indie title called Dear Esther. The rest they say, is history.

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

It very much depends on what I’m making, if I’m knee deep in development on a game then having a clear aesthetic/design for what I’m making as a whole is a big help – so that is what I will reference straight away. Going into content creation blindly is when I find I get great happy accidents, but having the design to fall back on makes the quality of my work a lot better as I am focussing on the detail and sound as opposed to spending many hours experimenting on stuff that might not work. Don’t get me wrong – I love to experiment – but with deadlines and budgets these days, sometimes that is just not possible.

If I am experimenting, stepping out into something I haven’t done before, then I will try and have a piece of reference that I would like to make (usually it’s from guys like Charles Deenen, Tim Nielsen, David Farmer – a few whose work I look upto a lot).

I like to research what I’m making before starting it. I will look at concepts, speak to artists, designers and scripters. I try to get out the studio as much as possible. But there are times when that just isn’t doable, so the best resource in that case is YouTube, where you can get a real understanding for how things sound and what makes an engine, item, weapon or piece of clothing unique. I can then use this reference to build upon and bend that realism whichever way I see fit.

Working on a project for a long period of time also allows the luxury of being able to come back to things a day or two after you’ve spent considerable time on something – leaving ideas, sounds, implementation and mixes to settle. When you revisit them, I find myself being able to approach it much more objectively and the new headspace allows the focus needed to make it much easier to polish.

What would be your favourite sound process?

The entire process of working on a project is an incredible experience, a good friend said to me “if you’re not scared going in then you have lost passion”. Going into a project is an incredibly daunting experience, and, whilst you might have a solid plan for how you want it to sound, it’s not until the game is finally done that you can hear what you and the team have created. The whole process, however long it maybe (a week, a month, a year or even 4 years) is the best part of the experience. You will come out the other end stronger and packed with a tonne of new knowledge.

Battlefield 3 and 4 are well known for its sound design. Could you tell us a bit more on the process of creating sounds for BF4? How long does it take to sound design a game project like Battlefield 3,4?

The audio in a game like Battlefield is a result of years and years of both technical and creative research. The audio team at DICE are all absolute masters at what they do, and it reflects in the output. The aesthetic behind the sound of Battlefield is thanks to people like Bence Pajor, Stefan Strandberg, David Mollerstedt, Ben Minto, Mari Saastamoinen Minto and Andreas Almstrom along with the other amazing folk who worked together closely to build up the context, feeling and raw sound the series is known for.
The technology behind the audio is also hugely important, DICE have been one of the integral studios in shaping how games sound today, not only through sound design but also through technology. Jonatan Blomster and Anders Clerwall have built and shaped audio technology such as HDR and the unique way that Frostbite allows sound designers to interface with the engine.

Thanks to the teams at DICE and other EA studios, I would quite confidently say that EA have the most advanced audio tools around for games – and that is not down to having budgets/team size – it is down to small groups of individuals having a laser sharp focus and knowing what they want to hear.

In terms of length to design the sound for Battlefield 4, it takes around 2 years, starting off with research. But it is really in the last 9 months of development when production really ramped up.

What projects have you been working on recently?

Recently I have been working on the sci-fi horror SOMA. This has been an incredible challenge as the game takes place both in indoor and underwater environments. Which has meant we have had to essentially create two entirely different soundscapes to achieve this. We did not want to use global processes or DSPs for underwater (such as a blanket low pass or reverb). Everything has been hand crafted for both soundscapes which has been a fantastic challenge. There are a lot of exciting approaches to the audio going into SOMA that I can’t wait for people to hear. But I cannot say much more until the game is released.

Are there any particular secrets to your creativity?

There are no magic secrets, my sound design is driven by what I find interesting to listen to. I think that is the case for all sound designers which is why there is such a vast array of different styles (which is great!). I think knowing what you like, what you want to make and how you want your work to be represented so people can identify it as being yours is where the secret to creativity lies. Once you are confident in your own ability and step outside comfort your comfort zone then that is where the really interesting ideas begin to develop.

That does not mean you should not ask questions and not learn from other people, there is an incredible amount of knowledge out there. And shutting yourself off from the community can be your biggest mistake. It is rare to find someone who won’t help you out in the audio community. So if you’re stuck, not asking or talking to others would be a very silly thing to do.

Hobbies outside of sound design are hugely important as well, go for walks, go to the gym, go fishing and start cooking. The best ideas come when you’re not staring at the screen.

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

I recently was making logo stingers for SOMA and was struggling to come up with something that I liked. My partner is currently pregnant and we have a handheld Doppler that is used to hear a baby’s heartbeat. The Doppler also makes fantastic distorted squelches and other radio sounds that I took into a session and the processed with Crazy Ivan. The result was a cacophony of tonal distortion that sat as one of the core components for the logo stinger.

What was the most inspiring moment in your career?

My career is coming upto a decade in length so far (I’m around 7 and a half years in), so I still have a long way to go. I have loved every minute of it. I am living out my dream and there are not many people who can say that. But, so far, my best experience has been the entire time spent at DICE, working with people who I looked upto and now call close friends. Battlefield 4’s development period was a big challenge – and I learnt a huge number of things (improvement to my sound design being just one of many things). Unfortunately I had to leave DICE due to some very personal reasons, but I still keep in touch with the guys daily.

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

Every project brings with it a myriad of learnings and takeaways. My biggest piece of advice is something I try to do on every project – which is to approach it in a naïve manner, don’t go in headstrong acting like a know it all. Not only is that creatively stagnant, but also quite repulsive to work with. No one knows it all and everyone is learning daily. Go into a project with fresh ears and eyes, and push yourself to try do something you haven’t before.

Any tips, hints or motivational speeches for the readers?

Similar to my last comment – don’t adhere to “rules”. I find (especially within games and the focus on implementation these days) that there is a trend to work in a specific way – to do specific processes and make specific sounding audio. This leads to stagnation and a lot of games sounding the same as their counterparts. If someone says something shouldn’t be done that way.. well why shouldn’t it?