What do you think it takes to be an audio professional for video games? I interviewed Michael Taylor, the audio composer and editor for many projects, including the soon to be released Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath HD, to find out. Mr. Taylor is clearly a man with plenty of passion for what he does.
McBeeferton: First off, could you tell our readers at Nerd Vice a little bit about yourself and what exactly you do?
Michael Taylor: I’m Michael Taylor, an audio designer and composer from the UK. I create, record and edit sound effects and music for video games. From menu beeps, environment ambiances to dialogue and creatures, if it makes a sound, I have to make or record that sound first! I’ve been working as a freelancer for about 3 years, and have contributed to over 20 releases in that time. I graduated from University last year, and am irrecoverably addicted to Cherry Coke and Sonic The Hedgehog games.
McBeeferton: What’s it like being an audio composer and editor? Is it hard to find work?
Michael Taylor: Well, I guess that depends on the definition of work! I found my first few projects simply by posting ads on Microsoft’s XNA developer forums and other dev hangouts. Getting the unpaid stuff is easy, but professional paying work, is super, super tough to find, particularly in the UK.
Creating audio for games is incredibly inspiring for me. Being given some artwork, or a description for a scenario of level, and bringing that to life with sound is a very challenging, but very rewarding experience.
McBeeferton: I can imagine. Music is often my favorite thing about a game. Certain songs just set the mood or accompany a scene so perfectly and something about it is incredible, to me at least.
Michael Taylor: Exactly, to bring up my Sonic obsession, I think Tomoya Ohtani is an incredible composer (See Sonic Colors, Sonic Unleashed). Those tracks always seem to make the locations come to life.
McBeeferton: Even in the older Sonic games, the music seemed to match the theme of the level you were playing. Marble Zone and Oil Ocean Zone, for example.
Michael Taylor: Yeah. A reason I was drawn to games over anything else, is how much of a role the music and audio plays in setting the scene. In movies, for comparison, the ‘location’ music always feels to me second to the ‘emotional’ music.
Chiptune music especially, as often the visuals might not have been enough to ‘sell’ the location, such as Super Mario Bros and the ‘underworld’ theme. It’s just a black background. If you didn’t see the end of the previous level, you wouldn’t know he had gone underground, but that bass riff helps place you underground.
McBeeferton: That’s definitely true. I never really thought about that before. So, you could say you were heavily influenced to become an audio composer because of older video games?
Michael Taylor: Hmm. I’d definitely say they were a massive influence, I never really liked music I heard on the radio. But I would run around humming music from Streets of Rage, or Street Fighter! When I hit my teens, I got into heavy metal in a big way. From there, my influences were Metallica, Metallica, and Metallica. But rather than the brute force or complexity of their music, it was their production and recording techniques that interested me, and eventually drove me to learn more about audio recording.
McBeeferton: Very nice, and where did it go from there? How did you advance from that point to working in audio on a pseudo-professional level?
Michael Taylor: Study, study and more study! I began with diplomas in music performance, expecting as I did to become the next James Hetfield, even though I could never grow a beard! From there, I realised it wasn’t as much the playing music I enjoyed, more the composition and the way sounds were layered and designed, so I switched to a music technology diploma, which I followed for 6 years through to University level, where I graduated with first class honours in Creative Music Production and Technology.
I should mention that Fable 1 was a big influence of making me interested in game sound. In 2005, when I moved away to study, I got totally hooked on Fable for the Xbox. I loved how they managed to make this artificial world sound like it was a real place. If I stood in Greatwood and closed my eyes, it would remind me of being in the fields I used to play in as a kid, and that fascinated me. How did they make it sound so real? I slowly diverted my attention from being a ‘music producer’ to wondering how the hell I’d get into game sound.
Luckily in 2007, when I had just begun my degree, I had to find somewhere to take me for work experience. I couldn’t find any recording studios who wanted a tea-boy for a week, so instead I went for a fantastic week of work experience at Lionhead Studios as a QA tester. I got to meet lots of cool people, and see some really cool stuff, beside playing Fable 2 the week before E3. When I was there, I didn’t meet the Audio Director (Russell Shaw) but I did meet an audio programmer, Neil Wakefield, who answered my totally daft and uninformed questions, and suggested I look into sound design for games. So, it’s all his fault really. Since then, I have been pimping myself out to developers of Xbox Indies and iOS games to help gain experience of game audio. As well as going a ton of research into game audio techniques and tools.
McBeeferton: You’ve recently worked on the high-definition remake of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath for Just Add Water, could you tell us more about them and your job for that game? I’m particularly interested in how you got the job.
Michael Taylor: I was stupidly lucky with Just Add Water and Oddworld! Basically, last summer I had just left Uni, and I had a small stack of Xbox Indies and iOS games under my belt and was looking for a job in game audio. Mostly this involved sending lots and lots of speculative emails to every developer in the country. Anyway, I saw the announcement of Stranger’s Wrath on the intertubes, remembered that it was my second favourite Xbox game (After Fable) and read a little more. I saw that the team responsible for the port were in Yorkshire which is pretty much a stone’s throw from where I live, so I sent them a speculative application too! But I didn’t expect to hear anything, so I forgot about it.
A couple of months later, I got an email from JAW, asking about my experience with a tool used in the XNA dev kit called XACT (Cross-Platform Audio Creation Tool to its friends, it’s a windows and Xbox only tool that allows sound designers to put their sounds and music directly into the game) and a multiplatform tool called FMOD. I told them that I had used XACT extensively on my Xbox indies work for making interactive music cues and randomised sound effects, and that I knew FMOD pretty well, so they invited me down to their offices to talk about it.
I popped down and met the team, and we discussed what they wanted from the audio, which was a) to port it to multiplatform capable audio middleware ; FMOD, and b) to increase the quality of the dialogue and as many audio effects as possible. They gave me 6GB of audio data and the original Xbox project files and sent me on my way!
Because the Xbox version had such low quality sounds in order to fit them all into the system memory, I ended up editing something like 10,000 lines of dialogue, and hunting through the archives for high resolution versions of some particular sounds that were really, really, *really* low quality. (There are some examples on the dev diary I wrote on JAWs website.)
It was tough work, rebuilding a sound structure with over 6,000 cues and 10,000 audio files (30,000 if you include localisations) in six weeks meant that I pulled a few all-nighters, but it was great fun! Some of those line of dialogue are really funny! Lorne Lanning is a very, very talented voice actor.
Another aspect of Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath was the music. Michael Bross, the original Audio Director on O:SW wrote some awesomely atmospheric music for Oddworld, and when I had to make some tweaks to the way the interactive music system worked, I contacted him to see if he had the original project files, and he was very cool and supportive.
McBeeferton: I really couldn’t imagine going through so many audio files. Was it tough work because of the skill required or just the overwhelming amount of content that needed to be edited?
Michael Taylor: It was a little of both, the sheer amount of content was a little daunting. This was a AAA game from the last generation, not a small iOS puzzle game, or bedroom coded platformer. So not only was the amount of content huge, but the pressure I put on myself to get it right for the fans, and Oddworld Inhabitants themselves was astronomical. I didn’t want to be the guy who ruined the game!
On the skill side of things, the XACT tool used to create the original Xbox version had some key differences with the publicly released version for Windows and Xbox 360 I was used to, which threw me a little, and the differences between XACT and FMOD were much greater than expected. That led to a couple of issues with music and real-time effects, but in the end I managed to accurately mimic the original implementation.
McBeeferton: Personally, as a fan of the game and the Oddworld franchise in general, I’m looking forward to playing Stranger’s Wrath HD and knowing that everything I hear is because of you. I’m sure it’ll be of great quality, and with this game under your belt, I also hope that you get a chance to do even bigger and better projects in the future. Could you see yourself doing that? Is that something you aspire to do in the future or are your more comfortable with smaller projects à la iOS and Xbox Live indie games?
Michael Taylor: Well, I’m certainly ready to try bigger and better projects! I definitely aspire to being involved with AAA, or more ambitious projects, but until then, I’m honing my ear on any project I can get my hands on.
McBeeferton: Do you have any projects set up in the near future? I know that Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee is also going to be remade in HD by Just Add Water, are you going to be involved in that as well?
Michael Taylor: Yes, I have been recreating all the original music as wave files, as the original music was written using a direct-X software package call DirectMusic Producer that used MIDI files and very small instrument samples. Again, it was tricky software to work with, but Michael Bross seemed to think I’d done a good job! If he’s happy with it, I’m happy with it.
McBeeferton: Seeing as how he’s the original composer and you’re editing his stuff, I’m sure it helps a lot that he thinks that!
Michael Taylor: Oh yeah, it was kind of unnerving emailing him at first, but he’s really cool, and has been very supportive of extra stuff we’ve done, such as the re-recording of female dialogue.
McBeeferton: What can you tell me about this extra work and female dialogue?
Michael Taylor: Well, Stewart Gilray (Just Add Water CEO) had seen some fans mentioning the lack of any female voices in Oddworld. All the O:SW voices were recorded by Lorne Lanning, Michael Bross and a couple of other Oddworld Inhabitants staff members. At first I was a little hesitant to change something like that, but after discussing it with Bross, he had always wanted to record female actors for those parts.
I think it was budgetary reasons why they decided to keep it to in-house staffers, and I guess none of the female Oddworld Inhabitants staff had the acting flair, but either way, we re-recorded the female character lines with Anjella Mackintosh, who is a great actress. I then had to edit the dialogue and make it fit with the existing characters and drop them into the game. It was really fun to sit in on the recording session, and then take those performances and get them into the game.
The female dialogue only applies to a couple of characters, we didn’t have time or resources to record lines for all the females, just the story specific ones.
McBeeferton: Gotcha. Nice touch, though!
Michael Taylor: Yeah, it was a shame we couldn’t take it all the way, but sometimes you do what you can.
McBeeferton: Maybe in future Oddworld games?
Michael Taylor: Who knows?
McBeeferton: So, you’ve come a long way and still have a long road ahead of you. Do you have any helpful advice for people out there who might want to get into the professional audio field either for video games or just in general?
Michael Taylor: Getting an education in the field you’re interested in is a great start, but if you’re really passionate about getting into games, my main advice is to get out there and do it yourself! Research the tools and techniques, there are plenty of online resources now. All the disciplines have great communities out there, and I have to give a shout out to the fantastic game audio community on Twitter in that respect. Most people out there are happy to help, so don’t be shy! Get out there and bug people!
McBeeferton: One last question. What’s your favorite video game and music artist?
Michael Taylor: Wow. That’s kinda tough! Recently Demon’s Souls has blown me away, but I’ll always have a soft spot for Sonic The Hedgehog, NiGHTS Into Dreams, and Fable.
McBeeferton: I’ve always loved the original Fable. The sequels don’t seem to match up quite as well, though. It had such wonderful, untapped potential for this generation.
Michael Taylor: Agreed. And music artist in general? Devin Townsend without question. His solo projects, and his ‘devlab’ album are very inspirational to me. His production and musical skills are phenomenal, he is my god.
McBeeferton: That about wraps up the interview. I hope some of our readers get something from your past experiences and I wish you the best of luck in the future, Michael.
Do check out Michael Taylor’s website, which has additional information on his past projects, here.