Brief list of credits
Fable Legends, LEGO Marvel Superheroes, LEGO Batman movie, LEGO The Lord of the Rings
Hi Michael, thank you for taking time and doing this interview. Let’s start by introducing yourself and telling us how you started working as a sound designer?
Hi and thank you for having me. My name is Michael Leaning and I’m a freelance sound designer based in Greater Manchester in the UK, operating under the business name ShotgunMike. Previous to this I spent 7 years in-house in the games industry, starting at Traveller’s Tales in 2009 before moving on to Lionhead Studios in early 2013.
Like a lot of sound designers, I came to the profession through music, picking up the guitar as a teenager and experimenting with different styles, tones and effects. I went on to study music technology at university with a mind to be a music producer or rock star, you know, something easy to get in to! We had this one project in my second year, to replace the sound for a clip from the animated film Monster House and there’s a scene where a hub cap detaches from a car and rolls to a stop and falls over. I remember scraping and hitting a frying pan with a spoon in time to the picture and thinking how cool it was to take an object and make it sound like something completely different. I think I caught the sound design bug from there and that become my focus for the rest of my degree.
Games have long been a passion of mine, since I was young and played games like Mario on the original Nintendo. It was during my time at uni that I played the first Fable game and the whole soundscape really blew me away, it was all so lush, the music was great (I still listen to it now) the dialogue was varied and funny and the sound design was brilliant. That’s when it all clicked for me and I realised that sound for games was what I wanted to do for a living. I was lucky enough to land my first role in early 2009 at Tt games working on the LEGO games, before moving to Lionhead Studios to work on Fable Legends. I’ve spent a very happy and productive 7 years in-house, before going freelance after the sad closure of Lionhead Studios earlier this year.
Let’s talk about your latest sound effects library The Undead. Could you share a story of how and why you created The Undead sound effects library?
I’ve always wanted to release some designed sound libraries and I love making creature vocals! I had a little downtime between projects, so it felt like the perfect opportunity to work on something fun like this. I was re-watching some game of thrones recently and saw the episode featuring the Massacre at Hardhome with the white walkers, and I loved what the sound team had done with the white walker vocals. They’re really powerful and creepy whilst retaining an element of humanity. There’s a lot of creature vocal libraries out there but not a great deal of fully designed powerful zombie/undead stuff. I wanted to make something designers could use straight out the box, it’s by no means an exhaustive collection of zombie sounds, but I think it’ll be a nice addition to people’s libraries and there’s plenty of variety in there for all sorts of different projects.
How did you plan the library and what were the main obstacles creating The Undead?
I started with the asset list, watched a lot of zombie shows and tried to think of as many useful vocalizations as possible. The list changed a little as I developed the library and I definitely added quite a bit as it went on. I tried to draw on my experience in games as much as possible and thought about the vocals I’ve needed when designing for creatures. I think the hardest thing was drawing the line under the asset list, at the end of the day, it’s a library that people will use on all sorts of different projects and I wanted to provide them with assets that they could combine easily in their own sessions. I obviously have no idea what sync people are working to so I tried to provide as much variety as possible, different textures, lengths and vocal types.
One thing I was very careful about when making each sound was that all the layers I used felt like they were coming from one source and weren’t just a collection of cool sounds playing all at the same time but feeling like they weren’t really part of the same thing. This meant I spent a lot of time tuning each element and balancing it’s volume in the mix, so it all gels together and feels like it’s a single creature vocal.
Could you tell us more about the equipment you used to create the library?
I recorded all my source material with a Sennheiser 416 at 96kHz 24 Bit, it’s obviously no Sanken CO-100K, but the 416 gave me high quality recordings and the selling point of the final product is more about the design than the pitch shifting capabilities of the original recordings. I record direct into an RME 800 and edit in Pro Tools HD11. I try and keep vocal processing to a minimum if I can, distortion or extreme pitch shift on vocals can make them sound a little synthetic, I try and make the vocal performances as aggressive and powerful as I can, so I’m starting with something that already sounds decent. Once I’ve got the vocal elements where I want them, I then start to add other materials, to create the power and texture. I’ve achieved a lot of the crispness and fidelity of the sounds by adding materials such as leather, ice and stone.
There’s minimal effects processing on these assets, a little bit of subtle pitched down doubler to create some width and on select source I’ve added a bit of Soundtoy’s Tremolator, but that’s about it. I’m much more into great source material doing all the talking when it comes to humanoid creature vocals.
ShotgunMike is a rather interesting name and I am sure there is a story somewhere behind the name. Could you share that story with us?
I really wish there was an interesting story involving a shotgun behind the name, sadly I’ve only fired a shotgun once and it definitely wasn’t in anger! I wanted a name to work under that had a ring to it and vaguely incorporated something audio related and my name. So that’s how ShotgunMike was born. Haha, pretty lame really, moving on…
You worked on Fable: Legends as a sound designer. Could you tell us how you got involved with the project and what were your main responsibilities?
Working at Lionhead studios was a fantastic experience in every way, despite the sad cancellation of the game and closure of the studio, there was some serious talent there, across all disciplines, and I had the opportunity to work on some amazing content and with some hugely talented people, Steve Brown (Audio Director at Supermassive Games), Tom Colvin (Audio Lead at Media Molecule), Chris Sweetman (co-founder of Sweet Justice) and Glen Gathard and Pete Burgis at Pinewood Studios, to name but a few!
I landed a role there by getting in touch with the Audio Director, Steve Brown, via LinkedIn. I just told him that I loved the Fable series and I’d love the opportunity to work at Lionhead if they ever had a position available. As it happened, they were looking for a sound designer and he told me to get in touch again in a month or so when the position was green lit. So I went away and worked on a 3 minute Fable: The Journey gameplay audio reskin. I got in touch a month later and sent him a link to the reskin (you can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uukURA-06cU) with a 12 page document about what I’d done and how I achieved it. Steve called me down for an interview and 3 days later they offered me the job! I was over the moon.
I worked at Lionhead for 3 years, going from a contract sound designer to an FTE Senior Sound Designer. I was responsible for the audio of the hero characters, which involved shaping their sonic aesthetic and direction. My focus was on sound design, implementation and system design for the creative and dynamic play back of audio in game. I partnered with Pinewood Studios to create bespoke foley and vocal assets and I worked with LA based studio Formosa, to outsource additional audio requirements.
How important do you think it is for a sound designer working in game audio to know his or her way around middleware?
Absolutely vital, even if you end up not implementing anything in game yourself. Knowing the basics of implementation shapes the way you design your audio assets. And let’s face it, if you work in audio for games, you’re probably going to have to implement audio in game at some point! Middleware like Wwise and FMOD are fairly standard across a lot of studios, but each studio will have bespoke ways of doing things, so a good understanding is important to lay the groundwork, but the rest they’ll teach you and you’ll pick it up on the job.
And for those aspiring game sound designers, there’s so much quality tutorial material online now that there’s really no excuse not to have looked at and have knowledge of audio middleware before you even land a role. Implementation is such a large part of the job, it’s so important to have a solid understanding of how sounds are implemented in game, and it’s a great topic to discuss in any interviews you may have.
Before moving to Lionhead Studios from Tt Games (Tt used propriety audio tools), I worked my way through all the tutorials and the Wwise Project Adventure. During the interview the subject of Wwise came up, at which point I opened my laptop and showed Steve some example Wwise projects I’d been working on. I think for someone not in the industry it shows some real initiative to learn industry tools, just make sure you have the knowledge to back up any claims you make about knowing how to use them!
You also worked on many LEGO games. How did you get involved with Traveller’s Tales and LEGO franchise?
After I finished university I was working as a manager at a rock school in Hertfordshire. It wasn’t a bad job by any means, but it’d been 9 months since I’d graduated and I didn’t seem any closer to landing a role in the games industry. I decided to hand my notice in and give myself “The Fear”, it was essentially make or break time, which in hindsight was incredibly stupid and I don’t recommend it to anyone! Luckily, 2 weeks before I became jobless, I got an interview at Traveller’s Tales through an agency and thankfully I landed the role. It was a great first gig and I got to work on so many amazing franchises and really develop my craft. I was there for 4 happy and very busy years, I worked on 8 LEGO titles and a LEGO Batman film. I also got to work with the incredibly talented Luke Hatton, Joe Cavers and Stefan Rutherford during my time there and we’re all still in regular contact now.
On many games you were also responsible for the artistic direction of the sound design. Could you share an insight about how you decide the artistic direction for a game, sound wise?
I think it’s about trying to create a cohesion between all the elements that make up the sound for a game and combining them in a way that does the game justice. Is the music emotionally fitting throughout the title and supportive of the narrative, does the atmos fit the environments, are the sounds appropriate, weighted correctly, powerful or subtle enough at the right times, does the game roll in to the cinematics, menus and different areas seamlessly etc. Obviously these are just a few considerations and it massively depends on the type of title you’re working on, but there’s so much to think about, especially when you’re creating something as large as a full triple A title.
I’m not sure I’ve always hit it the quality bar I’d like, but I’ve done the best I can. There’s always a deadline looming, so pre-planning before the production of a game starts is important as it gives everyone involved in the audio a target to aim for and you all know what the focus is.
I was lucky on Fable Legends that I was insulated from that as my focus was on a very specific area of the game, but I saw what Steve Brown was doing, managing what grew in to a fairly large audio team by the end. When you’ve got so many elements coming together, you need some clarity and someone bringing everything together in a way that supports the game, not just the desire to make cool sounds.
If there’s one thing I’d advise people to think about, it’s focus. What’s important to hear in a game can change from moment to moment, so mixing with this in mind is so important. You can have the most amazing elements across all areas of the audio spectrum, but if they’re all fighting each other to be heard at all times, it’s going to sound like a mess. Focus in on what you’re trying to convey, if you have a particularly emotional moment in your game and the music is haunting, bring everything else down and focus on that, if there’s not a lot going on but the character is in a beautiful or detailed environment, let the atmos shine. Same goes for high action sequences, strip away what’s unimportant and give the player the feedback they need. Sometimes it’s about beautiful audio moments, other times it’s about giving the player the information they need to understand what’s going on or what they should be doing. And if your game includes dialogue, make sure the player can hear it, especially if it’s critical to the story line.
As a final point on this topic, playing a game for the enjoyment of it is very different to listening to it critically and pulling it apart. Always have people uninvolved in the development of the audio play the game and give you their opinion. They may just spot something obvious that you’ve completely missed.
This one is for the gear heads. Would you mind, telling us a bit about your technical setup and the gear you’re using?
I work on a Win 10 audio PC from pcspecialist , running Pro Tools HD11 as my DAW of choice, with an RME 800 as my audio interface. I monitor with PreSonus Eris E8’s and Beyer Dynamics DT250’s. Plugin wise I have the Waves sound design suite, the Soundtoys bundle, GRM Tools and a selection of iZotope goodies. The list is ever growing though, there’s so many great plugins that I want.
For field recording I’m lucky enough to own a SoundDevices 702 with a Sennheiser 416 and Rycote blimp. I absolutely love this recorder and I’ve captured some awesome material with it. When the time comes and I need more channels the 744 or 788 is a must, just need to find a spare 4 to 8K.
Do you have any tips for aspiring sound designers, on how to gain a foothold in the game audio industry?
This is a big question and I know many people that have got in to the industry in lots of different ways. Essentially I believe it boils down to attitude, I’ve conducted a number of interviews for positions ranging from juniors to more senior roles and there’s always been one person that’s stood out from everyone else because of their positive attitude. I expect people to have a degree of audio skill if they’re good enough for an interview, but I personally want to work with people with a positive attitude and a great deal of passion for sound design. I want to hear about the intricate details of how you made a sound effect, because it’s the kind of thing I’m interested in and get’s me excited about audio.
For those of you that are looking for that first interview, absolutely perfect your show reels, once you’ve finished one, move on to the next, you’ll have learnt something in the last that you can improve on in the next one. Learn how to use middleware like Wwise, play lots of games and try and understand how they’ve implemented their audio and why they’ve done what they’ve done, questions about games will come up in an interview, so be prepared for that. Network, game audio is quite a close knit community and people are usually pretty generous with their time and advice, so get to know people via Twitter and LinkedIn. And absolutely don’t just spam people with generic CVs and emails, they’ll end up straight in the trash. Tailor your communications to companies, tell them why you want to work at their studio, direct them easily to your best work and make sure it’s appropriate to the kind of games they make, it shows that you can hit the ground running if they gave you a role there.
Bottom line is, there’s a lot of people who want a game audio job and not enough spaces for all of them, if you’re really serious about getting in, keep plugging away and improving, it can take time. Really critique your own work and welcome feedback and advice from other audio professionals. Making games is a collaborative process so get networking and talking to people from other disciplines who are also trying to break in to the industry. There’s always a chance for you to collaborate with them to gain more experience. I’ve been in your position, it can feel like a hard slog at the time, but it’s a great industry to work in and ultimately completely worth all the hard work.